Review: Cadillac Records


Somewhere within the desperation, excitement, misery and sheer exuberance of the musical/financial enterprise which was Chess Records lies the momentous turning point in the history of popular music when Chuck Berry was said to have ‘integrated the airwaves,’ literally turning thousands of white suburban teens into addicts of what was in the 1950’s still considered a ‘black’ sound.

The music was eventually called Rock and Roll and the rest of the story is history. In her new film Cadillac Records Writer/Director Darnell Martin strives to retell the opening chapter.

Starting with the founding of Chess in 1950 by Polish Jew immigrant Leonard Chess (played here by Adrien Brody) and the signing of Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright) a smooth talking, guitar-playing busker just arrived in Chicago from the South.

The two of them show contrasting motives; Chess wants to make enough money to earn the respect from his father in-law he feels he’s worth, while Waters longs to earn the appreciation for his music he feels he’s worked hard to achieve, along with all the liquor and women he can carry at once.

Soon enough the positive chemistry, which Waters and Chess’ working relationship elicits, sees them cashing the checks and driving around in the Cadillac auto mobiles which gave the record company its sub-name. At least that’s how the story goes in what is, overall, a discontinuous and dramatised take on documentary facts.

In reality, as always, the story was a little more detailed. Here Leonard’s brother Phil’s involvement in the label is rendered insignificant, while artists of notable stature such as Bo Diddley and Eddie Fontaine never seem to emerge. Despite losing sight of these and other attributes of the Cadillac Records venture, Martin approaches her subject matter with a care which is rather bold considering the complexity and depth of the historical period at hand, plus the colossal panoply of artists involved.

Columbus Short is convincingly edgy and disconcerting as Little Walter: the blues legend whose talent is consumed by drink, drugs and insecurity. Wright plays Muddy Waters with an enthralling mix of sensitivity and indifference, while Mos Def and Beyonce Knowles are both in good form. The latter as soul songstress Etta James and the former as Country and Rock pioneer Chuck Berry.

Both Knowles and Mos Def have recorded remakes of songs that their on screen personas originally performed and when these emerge in the latter half of Cadillac Records we are reminded of why these actor/musicians were successful in the first place.

Moreover the presence of the two in the film are charged with significance because both have endeavoured to continue the musical journey which began at Chess and other recording companies in the 1950’s. Beyonce recently sung a version of Etta James’ classic “At Last” during the Inauguration of President Barack Obama. While Mos Def’s last two albums have resounded with Muddy Waters style Blues references.

On his well known track “Rock and Roll” the rapper professes that “Elvis Presley ain’t got no soul / Bo Diddley is Rock and Roll” and that popular white Rock artists “never came up with that style on their own” thus venting his fervour at the commercial industry and the manner in which it has duplicated, diluted and capitalised on the sound of black American culture for so long.

In ways less convincing, Cadillac Records attempts the same. As the company begins to reap the consequences of poor record sales and self indulgence Elvis, The Rolling Stones and numerous other white artists are heard on the radio performing music and winning acclaim for rehashing ideas that Chess Records had already introduced years earlier.

Not only do these scenes come too late in the film, they are not conveyed with the kind of visual intelligence that such emotive events seem to demand. When Leonard Chess strives to rescue Etta from drug addiction and then decides that he’s ‘in love,’ we know that we are supposed to be enthralled by his honesty, but he merely comes across as desperate and the scene, like most of Cadillac Records, is insightful yet emotionally impotent.

Cadillac Records is in cinemas now.

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