The notable, frequently dramatic, story of pioneer modern blues label Chess Records and its founder, Leonard Chess, has made its way to the movie screen in a film as remarkable and as powerful as its subject -- Cadillac Records. While the film is not always historically accurate, it does indeed tell a powerful and well-scripted story that engages the watcher's attention fully.
We identify readily with the humanness, rough edges and creativity of the film's protagonists -- legends who are put into human terms in the film without sacrificing any of the creative greatness that made them legends in the first place. For Cadillac Records focuses itself around the frequently tempestuous musical and personal relationships of Leonard Chess with Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin' Wolf, Willie Dixon, Chuck Berry and Etta James.
The excellent soundtrack features many of the Chess classics played by a band of first-class musicians formed by harmonica great Kim Wilson, who plays harp on the soundtrack and masterfully re-creates the signature Little Walter licks. Other notables in the band are guitarist Billy Flynn and pianist Barrelhouse Chuck.
"'Hoochie Coochie Man' runs thematically through the film, as do Cadillacs."
Beyonce Knowles, who plays Etta James in the film, lends her excellent vocals to the re-creation of three of James's classics, including "At Last" and "I'd Rather Go Blind." Other songs re-created according to the originals are Muddy Waters's "Forty Days And Forty Nights," "I Can't Be Satisfied," and "Hoochie Coochie Man;" Little Walter's "Juke" and "My Babe;" Chuck Berry's "No Particular Place To Go;" and Howlin Wolf's "Smokestack Lightnin'."
Indeed, "Hoochie Coochie Man" runs thematically through the film, as do Cadillacs -- the major status symbol of the 1950s and 1960s, announcing that one had made it. Both make frequent appearances throughout -- and the final Chess Records scene, after Chess Records has closed and the studio has been bought by Willie Dixon, features "Hoochie Coochie Man" transformed into hip-hop, as a young Black singer re-creates it anew as a rap song.
Much of the focus throughout the film is on the persona and travails of Muddy Waters. Cadillac Records opens in 1941, when Muddy was unknown Mississippi sharecropper McKinley Morganfield, and he is recorded in the field by Alan Lomax and John Work, "folk music" recorders for the Library of Congress. The film ends with a delightfully bemused Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon alighting from a plane that has just touched down in England, where they are to perform blues concerts and are greeted by a sizeable coterie of lionizing journalists.
The major story line of Cadillac Records is the founding of Chess Records with Leonard Chess's commercially successful recording of Muddy Waters in the late 1940s and its continuance into the late 1960s, when Leonard Chess has finally decided to sell the ailing company, and leaves the Chess premises only to die in his Cadillac from a heart attack.
"Much of the focus throughout the film is on the persona and travails of Muddy Waters."
Intertwined with this key plot are several major sub-plots, among them Leonard Chess's admiring, yet condescending, relationship with Muddy Waters; the rivalry between Muddy and Howlin' Wolf, who points to his old, battered pickup that he owns and says to Waters standing by his Cadillac, "I own this. It don't own me;" Muddy Waters's frequently tempestuous personal relationships with his wife Geneva and with Little Walter; pugnacious Little Walter's downfall from booze and his temper that finally lead to his premature death in a gambling fight; payola; Chuck Berry, the beginnings of rock 'n' roll, and its breaking down the "color line" in the Eisenhower 1950s; the ugly realities of segregation and police brutality both in Mississippi and in Chicago; and Leonard Chess's musical and erotic attraction to the very troubled, boozing and smack-shooting Etta James, whom Chess admonishes, "You can sing the blues. You don't have to live them."
Also, a strong undercurrent is Leonard Chess's positive knack for letting the music just be, recording the music as the performers felt it, which is what made Chess recordings so notable. Also, thematically in the film is the dog days for Black blues in the early 1960s and Chess's search for crossover artists, which Chess achieved with Chuck Berry and Etta James.
And as a progenitor to the growing enthusiasm for blues among white audiences is a short vignette where the Rolling Stones arrive at the Chess studio to record, and Mick Jagger tells Muddy Waters the group named itself after one of his songs. Another aspect to this vignette is how these long-haired British lads are mocked and insulted by Chicago's Finest as they unload their equipment.
"A strong undercurrent is Leonard Chess's positive knack for letting the music just be."
Cadillac Records shows all these legendary figures of the blues as fully human, defects and all, and fleshes them all out as truly creative people who have created one of the most magnificent musical forms ever -- the blues -- despite their personal failings. Leonard Chess is nervous, intense, chain-smoking, has an all-too-frequent plantation overseer attitude toward his stable of artists, is cheap, and yet believes money can buy anything.
Muddy Waters is womanizing and always going to Leonard Chess for extra money, which Chess doles out while maintaining that it is just an advance on royalties. Chuck Berry's business acumen allows him to save great sums of money but breaks down when it comes to attractive young women, especially white women. Little Walter is pugnacious, cocky, and can't control the booze. Etta James is haunted by her past, and seeks refuge from it in alcohol and heroin.
Despite the historical liberties taken in translating the story of Chess Records to film, Cadillac Records still rings substantially true, honest and unvarnished, and is, of course, the story of a vital bit of Americana.
In her 2007 interview with the New York Times, Odetta summed up in one word what was behind the powerful blues and folk music of African Americans -- "slavery." Slavery was behind the greatness of the blues as Chess Records gave them to us as well. Slavery -- and its transcendence, even if only partially -- that is what is behind the great musical contributions African Americans have given to the whole world. From their suffering has come one of the greatest arts.
Cadillac Records stands along with Ray and Walk the Line as another one of the great, unembellished films of recent years on truly creative people who have also had their personal failings. These films -- Ray in the case of Ray Charles, Walk the Line in the case of Johnny Cash -- show the artists, warts and all, and give us all a lesson in creativity: as something that does not come easy, and as something that frequently comes out of human turbulence and shortfalls.
Cadillac Records joins in this cinematic honesty, and also, like Ray and Walk the Line, demonstrates conclusively that honesty cannot only be art, but entertaining art as well.
The Blues Year 2008
The year 2008 in the blues was a year of "The Sky Is Crying" due to the passing of so many of the greats. We lost two powerful women of African descent who were not only part of world music but also artists who used their talent to fight for Black freedom: Miriam Makeba and Odetta. We also lost rock 'n' roll pioneer Bo Diddley, and soul pioneer Isaac Hayes, along with blues-jazz-funk organ maestro Jimmy McGriff and the record producer with the knack both for positively creating soul and for having the sense to know when to let it be and just leave the artists alone, blue-eyed soul progenitor Jerry Wexler.
Not part of the blues, but notably connecting to its soul and its voice, were two other creative giants who have passed -- Studs Terkel, who documented the lives and concerns of the common man and woman, and George Carlin, who, like Lenny Bruce, could not only hold up a mirror to ourselves and expose us to our seamy and undesirable undersides, but also give us a good belly laugh while he did it.
2008 was also a good year for a number of independent, small-label recordings, which I've had the pleasure to review in "Blues and More." Yes, "The Sky Is Crying," but "The Blues Is Alright" as we go into 2009.
What I'd Like Obama to Do on January 20
On January 20, 2009 or soon after, I'd like to see President Barack Obama make a dramatic landing on an aircraft carrier from a small plane, alight from the plane wearing a military-style jacket with the Presidential Seal prominently placed on it, and give the peoples of America and the world a speech emphasizing "Mission accomplished"!
But seriously. Since "Blues and More" is a blues column, let's be right up front and admit that George W. Bush and Co. have given us eight years of very bad, unsoulful blues, for which we now say, "Good Riddance, and don't let the door hit you on your way out!" So long forever, Georgie, Dickie, Condi and all the rest of the neoconservative ilk! And thanks for the recession, the Wars on Terror and in Iraq, and the bailout--we won't be able to forget any of those anytime soon!
George Fish can be reached at email@example.com.