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FEATURES -- Cadillac Records Film Review

Cadillac Records:

  Music history minus facts

 equals pure entertainment

By James Porter

cadillac-etta-leonard 

Cadillac Records is a pretty good movie for what it is. Plenty of drama, a few laughs, some decent approximations of '50s blues, R&B and rock and roll. Just don't confuse it with the facts.

 

As you likely know by now, this is a filmed adaptation of the Chess Records story, dramatizing the famed Chicago record label that gave us Muddy Waters, Etta James, Chuck Berry, Howlin' Wolf and Little Walter. Unfortunately, the filmmakers would have you believe that these were the only acts on Chess, forgetting Bo Diddley, the Dells, Sonny Boy Williamson, and several other acts, major and minor, who put this South Loop-located label on the map. Look closely - even in the scenes in Leonard Chess' office, the only album covers and photographs seen are of Muddy, Wolf, Walter, Bo and Etta. Too bad; they could have gotten Tyler Perry to play Moms Mabley and he would have stolen the show. The blues fan and record collector in me could sit for hours checking out the various errors ("Iodine In My Coffee" by Muddy Waters did NOT make it to #1 on Billboard's R&B charts). But as far as pure entertainment...not a bad movie. The filmmakers tapped some stellar Chicago area talent for the soundtrack:  Billy Flynn, Larry Taylor, Barrelhouse Chuck and Eddie Taylor, Jr., along with harp player Kim Wilson.

 muddy-waters

I was especially pleased to see that Beyonce Knowles does NOT bogart the whole movie. Sure, she has a prominent role as Etta James, was one of the financial backers for the movie, and even has one of her songs played over the closing credits (NOT a blues or old-school R&B tune); but in the general scheme of things she is just another character in the flick. The linchpin of the film appears to be Muddy Waters, who is played by Jeffrey Wright. Even though staff songwriter/musician Willie Dixon (played by Cedric the Entertainer) probably played that role in real life, the movie is seemingly seen through Waters' eyes. He's depicted as the first artist on the label, and whenever something significant happens, Waters manages to magically be on the scene. Waters and Wolf (played by Eamonn Walker) have their excesses, and Etta James' drug addiction is given significant screentime, but Little Walter (Columbus Short) is the real wildcard, drinking heavily, putting the make on other men's women, and riding around in a car with homemade air conditioning (he merely ripped the doors off of it...a true story that Walter himself once mentioned in an interview).

 

Blues movies are few and far between; you could have an all-day marathon and probably cover them all (not counting documentaries). So when they get the details wrong, it really stands out. It's not as factual as it could have been - Leonard's brother Phil and son Marshall were left out of it altogether, and they played crucial roles in Chess' history. But thank God it didn't turn out to be another Black Snake Moan (which starred Samuel L. Jackson as a homicidal blues musician in the Delta who befriends the town nympho). The only Cadillac scene that seems to ring false is the current segment towards the end which shows a couple of modern-day rappers doing a hip-hop version of "I'm A Man" (and I thought Chris Thomas King was bad). Other than this...if you forget the truth for a couple of hours, the movie plays real well. One really good detail that the real Chess Records didn't have: that neon sign with the Chess logo revolving under a needle as if it were an actual record...I'm surprised that Leonard, Phil or Marshall Chess didn't think of that!

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