Cadillac Records (7/10)
by Tony Medley
Run Time 108 minutes.
In 1947 Polish émigré
Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody) opened a bar on the South Side of Chicago
and hired a blues combo that included soft-spoken, thoughtful guitar
prodigy Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright) and temperamental, high strung
harmonica player, Little Walter (Columbus Short). From this start, Chess
arranged to have them recorded and eventually opened his own studio and
recorded the first of the black blues and rock ‘n’ roll stars like Chuck
Berry (Mos Def) and Etta James (Beyoncé Knowles). This film chronicles
the problems he faced, especially with the personalities of the talent
whose recordings he produced.
Although the actors are all
professional singers in their own right, I have the same criticism of
this film, that is filled with snippets of music, that I have had of
recent musical biopics. Maybe it’s understandable, since Beyoncé is the
executive producer, but they all use their own voices instead of
mouthing to the great singers they are portraying. I’m sorry, but I
don’t want to hear Mos Def cover Chuck Berry. I want to hear the real
thing. Beyoncé is a terrific singer, but I want to hear James herself. I
would especially have liked to have heard her classic hit, “At Last,”
sung by her. Even worse, however, is that only a few songs are sung from
start to finish. Not surprisingly those few songs are all sung by
executive producer Beyoncé. So we don’t hear Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline,”
or “Sweet Little Sixteen,” or “No Particular Place to Go” in a complete
performance. This is a movie about great music, but Beyoncé and
writer-director Darnell Martin apparently are like the other modern
producers and don’t realize that the star of a movie about great music
is the music.
As to “Sweet Little
Sixteen,” this is almost the exact melody used for the Beach Boys hit,
“Surfin’ USA.” I had always been of the impression that Brian Wilson had
put lyrics to Berry’s melody as homage to Chuck. Berry doesn’t even
mention “Surfin’ USA” in his autobiography. But according to this film,
Berry had to sue the Beach Boys for copyright infringement and won. If
this is true, it makes me lose a lot of respect for The Beach Boys,
especially considering the fact that “Surfin’ USA” was apparently
written while Chuck was in prison.
Martin presents the artists
as tough people with huge personal problems, probably pretty accurately.
Beyoncé, Wright, Short, and Def show these stars with all their warts.
Unfortunately, the warts are magnified, to the detriment of their
talent. The warts are interesting, but the music is minimized and that’s
a shame. The acting is exceptional. Beyoncé gives a terrific performance
as the flawed James. However, from what I know, it seems to me that
Brody’s portrayal of Chess was tilted too much to avoid the warts.
Chess was apparently
exploiting his performers throughout his dealings with them by cheating
them out of their rightful royalties. He was a smart white guy and all
his artists were poor, uneducated, disadvantaged blacks. This movie only
alludes to this and implies that Chess was honest. Waters is shown as
constantly destitute. While there are a few scenes where they argue
about money, the resolution of the issue is left up in the air,
although, as Waters points out to Chess at one point, he had nothing and
Chess lived extremely well, all on the proceeds of Waters, James, Berry,
and the others whose records he produced. In fact, the movie makes one
feel that Chess was honest. However, to the contrary, Berry says that
throughout his career with Chess, Chess paid him the same songwriter’s
royalty on a single as he did on an album that contains 11-12 songs.
When an audit many years into their relationship revealed this
discrepancy, Chess claimed ignorance. Oh, yeah? He really thought that
the royalty on 11-12 songs should be the same as the royalty for one
There is a lot of profanity
in the movie. Whenever Chess is dealing with his artists, they are all
using the “f” word constantly, none more profligately than Chess.
However, here’s what Berry says about that, “Leonard … never used
profanity while doing business with me at any time in our affiliation.”
One would think that if he didn’t use it with Chuck Berry, he wouldn’t
have used it with any of his other artists, especially Waters, who was
very soft spoken, and James, a beautiful, talented woman with whom he
apparently had a fling.
As to Waters, Wright plays
him like Marlon Brando played the Godfather, like he has mush in his
mouth. I have no way of knowing if that’s the way Waters actually
talked, but it was very difficult to understand what he was saying.
This ultimately enjoyable
movie has a disjointed first half, but it picks up in the second half.
November 18, 2008