“Cadillac Records” sounds like a film about a fictional record label, but it’s the story of Chicago’s Chess Records …sort of. The misleading title refers to co-founder Leonard Chess’ habit of buying cars for his artists. In reality, there were TWO Chess brothers, but in the film they’ve been rolled into one man, played by Adrien Brody. If that idea bothers you, then Cadillac Records isn’t the movie for you. But I enjoyed it. It’s far from historically accurate, but I’d suggest you see it for fun, and look to the many books and documentaries for the real story. Recording for early labels was very much like sharecropping — with the record label playing landowner to the artist’s sharecropper. As tenant farmers, sharecroppers farmed land for the owner, and were paid a share of the value of the yielded crop. If the boss did well, you did well, as long as you didn’t get too uppity. It was the same for many of the early blues and rock & roll recording stars. Sun Record’s Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash, and Chess’ Muddy Waters, came from sharecropping families. Just as children of alcoholics are more likely to marry an alcoholic, folks from sharecropping backgrounds seem predisposed to accept a similarly inequitable, yet familiar arrangement. In the film, as in real life, like a plantation owner, label boss Leonard Chess took care of his artist’s day-to-day needs; buying cars and houses, and dealing with their family emergencies, or trouble with the law, and he simply took it out of their royalties without an accurate accounting.
The two most important factors in biopics about musicians are the casting, and the music, and “Cadillac Records” gets high marks for both. The music is close enough to the original versions in sound and spirit, and Cedric The Entertainer as Willie Dixon, and the blokes who play The Rolling Stones, are the only two casting missteps. The movie begins with folk archivist Alan Lomax making his famous field recording of Muddy Waters. Upon hearing what he sounds like, Waters leaves home and heads to Chicago. There, Muddy teamed up with legendary harmonic player Little Walter, and guitarist Jimmy Rogers. They called themselves “The Headhunters” because they’d walk into a bar where another band was playing, ask to sit in, and then “cut their heads” by outplaying them and taking their gigs. In the film, Len Chess’s tiny nightclub mysteriously burns down, and he invests the insurance money in a state-of-the-art recording studio where Little Walter amplifies his harmonica, and where Walter, Waters, and Rogers electrify the blues to great success. It’s in the studio that the second major player in the film is introduced: Howlin’ Wolf played by Eamonn Walker; the best-cast actor in the entire film. Cadillac Records differs from other biopics because the first half is better than the second. Not that the second half is without excitement… Little Walter succumbs to alcoholism, struggles with his demons, tries to seduce Muddy’s wife, and has a bloody run-in with the cops, before he tells Muddy to “find yo’self another harp player” and later dies after an altercation during a dice game. Mos Def, as Chuck Berry, steals the picture. Usher was reportedly the producer’s first choice, but Mos is built like Berry, and embodies his spirit–and apes his voice and performing style well enough to impress. However, his receding hairline is entirely out of place. Berry was a hairdresser with a great head of swept-back hair. The film is full of black men with pompadours, and smoking cigarettes has never looked better …this is not the film to watch if you’re trying to cut back on the cancer sticks. Muddy Waters himself suggested that Berry contact Leonard Chess. Chuck’s hybrid country/blues helped the blues morph into rock & roll, and his record sales carried Chess in the later days of Leonard Chess.
The only historical gripe I have with the film is they left Bo Diddley out entirely. NO Diddley? Like Berry, Bo sold a lot of records in 1955. Granted, he didn’t have the string of hits Chuck did but his success, like Berry’s, showed the direction music was headed in. With his odd-shaped guitars, horn-rimmed glasses, and baggy suits he would have added as much to the film’s visual appeal as the soundtrack. Berry’s popularity grew and integrated radio, and audiences, which led to his arrest on a trumped up charge of violating The Mann Act. The rumor is that it was so named because anyone charged with transporting a minor across state lines always says the same thing: “Aw, MAN-N-N! I didn’t know she was a minor! ” Executive producer Beyonce plays singer Etta James, and yet another fictitious story line involves a love affair between Etta and Leonard Chess. Along the way, Len coaxes crossover performances out of Etta, and attempts to reunite her with her father, who her prostitute mother always maintained was Minnesota Fats. In the late 60’s, British bands covering the songs of Chess artists were far more popular than the Chess artists themselves.
I was surprised to hear a theater-wide gasp of surprise when The Rolling Stones told Muddy Waters that they named their band after one of his songs. The best thing about these movies is that they’re often a rock fan’s first introduction to their hero’s influences. Rock & Roll’s second wave borrowed heavily from Chess artists. The film shows how The Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ U.S.A.” is Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” note for note, and Led Zeppelin converted the lyrics to Willie Dixon’s “You Need Love” to “Whole Lotta Love.” In the film’s close, Chess packs up shop while Etta sings a sad song and, in another bit of fabrication, has a heart attack before he gets a block away. What is accurate is that Willie Dixon & Muddy Waters went to Europe and got a hero’s welcome, Chuck Berry got a co-writer’s credit on Surfin’ U.S.A., several Chess artists successfully recovered their back royalties, and Dixon filed and won a lawsuit against Led Zeppelin. The good guys win again! Like any good record, Cadillac Records contains some mistakes, but the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.