CHECKMATE Cadillac Records

The Chess Records biopic
pays a much-needed tribute to the legends. Some of them, at least.

 

BY
RICK ALLEN

 

 The lives and stories of Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters,
Little Walter, Chuck Berry, Willie Dixon and dozens of others are the stuff of
which American cultural legends are made. Their origins range from below poor
to middle-class but all are self-made men who had to deal with the usual trials
and uncertainties of a non-mainstream musician’s life. They also had to deal
with the oppressive and often brutal racism behind the physical, psychological
and economic assaults that were made no less painful by being expected and
familiar.

 

True,
the Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf of Cadillac
Records
(released to theaters by Sony Pictures last December and recently
out on DVD) are not the “real” Muddy and Wolf. But the Davy Crockett of the
Walt Disney TV films that were enthralling baby boom kids right around the time
of the events of this film took place wasn’t real, either. Accurate or not, the
Disney films kept Crockett’s name alive and it inspired many of those baby boom
kids to look deeper into American history in general and Crockett in
particular. Those who did found out how easily pop culture can turn men who
traded in slaves (Jim Bowie) and who fought so that Texas could eventually
enter the Union as a slave state into “freedom fighters”. If Cadillac Records piques interest in
Muddy, Wolf and the blues and if it spawns more films about those incredible,
fascinating, brilliant men then more power to it.

 

That’s
the “good” about Cadillac Records,
director Darnell Martin’s highly fictionalized account of the story of Chess
Records, one of its founders, Leonard Chess, its music and some, but not nearly
all or even enough, of the people who made and sustained it. Musician, blues
lovers and music historians will have hours of playtime fun though, picking out
the historical and musical inaccuracies, omissions and borderline slanders that
run throughout.

 

Among
the “bad” is the film’s uneven attention to detail. The clothes, cars and
furniture look great and appropriate. But one can easily imagine outraged
guitarists world-wide exclaiming, “Where’s Muddy’s Telecaster?” A brief flash of
one in a case and in a backstage bathroom scene and that’s it. Sure, he played
a Les Paul and other guitars, some which are pictured in the film. Many if
these artists played whatever they could afford or was handy or new or intriguing
to them at a particular time. But a film, especially because of the shortcuts
and symbolism involved in movie making, should deal with its subjects’ iconic
paraphernalia. How acceptable would it be to have Stevie Ray Vaughan depicted
playing a Gibson 335 or B.B. King with a Stratocaster? Even a non-musician
would know that it just looks wrong.

 

It’s
the kind of discrepancy that makes every other detail suspect. The money shots
should have the hero working his number one axe – Jupiter with a thunderbolt,
not a .45. But there are some mouth wateringly beautiful instruments and pieces
of equipment shown in the film and the music itself is handled surprisingly
well considering only Beyoncè Knowles (Etta James) and Mos’ Def (Chuck Berry)
are vocalists by profession. Jeffrey Lewis (“Quantum of Solace”) as Muddy
Waters and Eamonn Walker (“Oz”) do very good jobs of approximating the vocal
styles of their real-life counterparts. Lewis’ performance is watertight
dramatically and vocally, his approximation of Muddy pretty good. But Walker, with a third or
less of the screen time, does just as well dramatically. Faced with the
near-impossible task of conveying the unique, eerie power and dynamism of a
Howlin’ Wolf vocal, Walker
nails it admirably. As good as Walker is, one can’t help but imagine the soul
shaking surprise in store for those who, inspired by Walker’s performance, seek
out and hear the great Wolf for the first time.

 

As
far as showing these and other musicians working their instruments, there are
“real” musicians doing most if not all of the actual playing. The film’s music
producer and coach, drummer Steve Jordan, stands in for longtime Chuck Berry
drummer Fred Below (who is depicted onscreen but not referenced by name except
in the director’s commentary); the Fabulous Thunderbirds’ Kim Wilson handles
harmonica for the Wolf and Little Walter characters; and several different guitarists,
including Chicago bluesmen Eddie Taylor and Billy Flynn, handle that instrument
for various characters. A particular treat is Hubert Sumlin’s appearance onscreen
as an unmade sideman alongside the actor portraying his younger self. When it
came to picking someone to play the classic licks of Howlin’ Wolf’s right – and
left – hand man, director Martin wisely went with the original.

 

Music
films have gone a long way since the days when the hands of Cary Grant’s Cole
Porter (Night And Day) were kept
hidden by the piano lid or when shots of the hands of an actual musician were clumsily
cut in. While Woody Allen’s Sweet And
Lowdown
had Sean Penn, as fictional jazz guitarist Emmet Ray, doing a very
good job of moving his fingers at the right time, even non-guitarists were
amused to see him furiously working the low end of the guitar neck while notes
octaves higher than the ones available there were heard.

 

Cadillac Records is far better in that
respect. And it’s light years beyond the days when the pop bands du jour used
to be shown on the beach playing electric guitars without an amplifier in
sight. If Jeffrey Lewis isn’t actually playing the guitar, or if it wasn’t his
playing that made it into the soundtrack, his fingering and timing are dead on.
When Mos’ Def’s picking hand is shown in close-up he seems to be hitting the
right strings at the right time and in the right rhythm. No one expects actors
to play as well as the people they’re portraying did or do, but they should
look like they can. Through the actor’s intense preparation (according to
Martin, Lewis wore his guitar almost every waking hour of the day and took
lessons in order to gain a natural familiarity) and the use of real musicians
like Jordan and others as onscreen band members, the film’s musical look and
feel ring true and the music itself is effective and authentic.

 

The
“ugly” of the movie – besides Cedric The Entertainer’s clownish, superfluous,
narration – is the casual way it dismisses people key to the story it’s trying
to tell. How can the story of Chess Records be told without a single mention of
its co-founder, Leonard Chess’ brother Phil? There is one brief scene included
in the DVD extras but it didn’t make it into the film. What’s next; the story
of the Two Stooges? Chess Records wasn’t even Leonard’s first shot at the
business as the movie would have its audience believe. How can Willie Dixon,
who wrote, performed on and produced a huge and significant share of the music that
made the label what it was, be reduced to such a minor character? If people
like Fred Below, Lafayette Leake, Otis Spann, Jimmie Rogers, Big Crawford,
Johnnie Johnson and on and on are not going to be part of the dramatic action
then their names and their contributions should be loudly and clearly referenced
and defined.

 

And,
if you will pardon the French, where in the bloody hell is John Lee Hooker and Bo Diddley?

 

Robin
Williams had the perfect answer to those who expect more reality in films: “It’s the movies… none of it is real.
But sometimes, the most accurate and involuntary way to express the difficulty
of accepting what Martin asks her audience to swallow is with an apoplectic “Oh
come on!”

 

There
may be no more significant moment for a rock and roll or any other type of popular
music fan than the moment when they finally “get” the blues. When the
realization hits of how much jazz, country, hip hop, soul, r&b and even
bluegrass owe to the blues it is eye-opening and almost staggering. The American
popular music road doesn’t lead to Damascus.
It leads to Detroit’s Hastings St., Chicago’s
South Side, Beale St.
in Memphis, 12th and Vine in Kansas City and the Mississippi
delta. In turn, the paths from those places led, among other places, to Chess
Records. Bluegrass, electric blues, modern
country and western and rock and roll music all bloomed in the decade following
World War II and Chess had a finger in most of those musical pies.

 

At
the very least, Cadillac Records effectively conveys the musical excitement of the times it inhabits as well as poignantly
bringing the era’s social and musical injustices into painful focus. Chuck
Berry’s “eccentricities” are legendary. But how must it have felt to have been
the man with a legitimate claim to having invented it see Elvis Presley, for
all his importance and talent, proclaimed the King of Rock and Roll and know
the reason why? Wouldn’t that have the power to make someone just a little bit nuts? The film brings home
the confusion and frustration Berry
must have felt hearing the Beach Boys appropriate his music for “Surfin’ USA”
and claim authorship. This from a band led by Brian Wilson, one of pop music’s best
and most prolifically creative and brilliant songwriters. It was just so unnecessary and seems even more callous with
the realization that it was probably not a consciously malicious act. The Beach
Boys were probably just exercising the privileges that society allowed them;
even barely post-adolescent white boys had the advantage over a full grown
black man; even a famous one. It was the way things were done – songwriters are
notoriously light-fingered anyway – and maybe it’s more upsetting because of
that.

 

The
thought of Chuck Berry, the man who wrote “Johnny B. Goode,” the song that
could serve as the starter batter for rock and roll should every other example
of it vanish, the man who turned the guitar into a cultural weapon and,
directly and indirectly into almost a household object, the sight of this man,
this great American artist, a musical hero and an icon despite whatever
personal failings, eating bologna sandwiches and sleeping in his car because he
was too proud to buy a hamburger served via the back window or kitchen door of
a restaurant that wouldn’t seat him or to stay in a “colored” motel, should be
considered obscene and unacceptable even in retrospect.

 

Scenes
like the one showing that are among the moments when Cadillac Records redeems itself.

 

The
four main leads, Jeffrey Wright, Columbus Short (Little Walter), Beyoncè
Knowles and Adrien Brody (as Leonard Chess), along with, especially, Eamonn
Walker are almost better than the film deserves and each of the four artists –
Muddy, Wolf, Etta and Walter – have stories fascinating, tragic, and deserving
of their own films. If they don’t get them, if they and the Robert Jr.
Lockwoods, Lafayette Leakes, Otis Spanns, Jimmie Rogers etc. don’t get their
names and stories told in film and elsewhere, those names and stories are in
danger of being as lost to history as those of the men who risked and gave as
much or more alongside Disney’s or history’s Davy Crockett at the Alamo.

 

And
that would and likely will be an American tragedy.

 

 

[Pictured: Jeffrey
Wright at Muddy Waters, Columbus Short as Little Walter]

 

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