Monday, January 19, 2009

Cadillac Records

As Muddy Waters said, the blues had a baby and they called it rock 'n roll; Cadillac Records is the story of how that baby was born, and the many foster parents who nurtured it: Muddy, Howlin' Wolf, Etta James, Little Walter, and of course record label man Leonard Chess, who all helped raise that baby for Chuck Berry to bring onto the scene. Written and directed by Darnell Martin, it's an ambitious tribute to the birth of rock 'n roll that is enjoyable to watch for fans of the music, but is a bit scattershot in its history and portrayals.
The movie is narrated by songwriter Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer) who's laying it down for history; we meet Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody) in his junkyard shack sticking it to someone's daughter, who he can't marry because he hasn't "made it" yet. He likes to hang out in buckets of blood (the old term for mixed clubs) and listen to blues and R&B; he gets a good ear for it, and eventually finds Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright) , who's moved to Chicago after Alan Lomax recorded him playing on a farm down South. As you can see, it's a little confusing already; a lot was going on all over America at the time to make "race records," as the music was termed, gain in popularity, "break the wall" and cross over into the white charts, and make the biracial rock 'n roll baby.
Muddy Waters brings along Little Walter (Columbus Short), a wicked harmonica player, to Chess and he makes some records of his own; but he's a tortured soul, like many of the great artists of the time. Lenny Chess had a brother in reality, but he's still alive, so I guess he was left out for legal reasons; Lenny isn't great with money, and while he pays his musicians with brand new Cadillacs, much of their money is advances on royalties, houses made of straw. When Howlin' Wolf (Eamonn Walker) drives up in his banged up pickup truck, Muddy and Lenny joke about it, but the Wolf says "it ain't much but it's mine." He even compares the advances to sharecropping, politely enough. Walker's performance as Wolf is full of presence and charisma, but the movie is shared with so many personalities that it's easy to overlook.

Muddy Waters by the always-underrated Jeffrey Wright, who once again transforms. He's been Basquiat, Felix Leiter in the last two Bond films, "Peoples" Hernandez in the Shaft remake- if you put his Muddy Waters and those 3 in a line-up, you couldn't guess they were the same man. Unfortunately here he does a lot of staring, and while he looks like Muddy, he looks so stiff sometimes, sitting there in the background. Beyoncé is fine as Etta James- she seems to have picked up something from Jennifer Hudson stealing scenes in Dreamgirls- and the movie delves deepest into her pain. Her mother, a prostitute, told her that her father was none other than Minnesota Fats- and Chess sets up a meeting between them, but there is no reconciliation. It touches on her addictions, and even suggests that Chess & Etta had affairs, but mostly what you'll remember is Beyoncé belting out Etta's tunes.

Everything changes once a skinny impish guitar slinger with a pencil-thin mustache shows up singing "Maybelline." When Chess brokers a deal to get him on the radio, the promo man says "I'm gonna make you famous, and Chess rich." So Chuck Berry stands up and switches chairs with him.
Mos Def manages to capture Berry's wicked grin and sense of humor, and shines when he's not singing the songs. His voice is too nasal and for a long time fan, it's grating. He's a fine actor and does a great job with a difficult part, and in fact soon after I recognized him, I forgot and accepted him as Berry. That's quite an accomplishment, especially since I've seen Hail! Hail! Rock 'n Roll, and other documentaries with Chuck on and offstage, so I can compare.

Soon thereafter, the entire label is "riding on Chuck's coat-tails," as Chess puts it- he's buying the Cadillacs. The narrator tells us that Chuck saved money while others pissed it away on vice, and wouldn't spend a dime on a segregated hotel or restaurant, sleeping in his Caddy and eating sandwiches instead. "While battles were being fought over buses, their children were listening to Chuck's rock 'n roll." The movie wisely doesn't give too much credit to entertainment, but that's how you shape the next generation. But Chuck had his own vice- young white ladies. And during the peak of his career he was in jail for violating the Mann Act. In reality, it was for hiring a 14 year old girl to work in his club, who was later charged with prostitution, but that's Hollywood- they're compressing decades of history with a half-dozen people into 109 minutes, and that's where it suffers.
The movie tries to jam a lot of history into one story and draws a lot of sketches, which will be enjoyable for fans of the music who want a hazy history of the rise of rock 'n roll from blues in Chicago. We know a lot of it- how royalties got traded for fame and Cadillacs, the pain that fuels the blues gets plugged with smack and gin, and how the British invasion was inspired by it all- but you'll learn some things you might not have known. Like how the Stones brought Muddy Waters to England for a 1967 tour, when he needed it most, or Etta James and the famous pool player. The problem is there are several great stories to be told here, and combining them into one weakens them all.
The first rock 'n roll record is often agreed to be "Rocket 88" by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats (which was really Ike Turner and his studio band) back in '51; but it was an evolutionary process, from Big Joe Turner's "Shake, Rattle & Roll," Les Paul's invention of the electric guitar and use of multi-track dubbing on songs like "How High the Moon," and "Hound Dog" in '52 by Big Mama Thornton, a song written by two white teenagers. Chuck Berry's infectious rhythms, charismatic stage persona, and ability to burst across race lines, too. Or as AC/DC put it in "Let There Be Rock," you could say "white man had the schmaltz- black man had the blues- nobody knew what they was gonna do, but Tchaikovsky had the news."

3 ding-a-lings out of 5

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