CSM’s Choice: Cadillac Records, a Game of Chess – review

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Charles Shaar Murray reviews
CADILLAC RECORDS (2008)

Written and directed by Darnell Johnson
Jeffrey Wright, Adrien Brody, Beyonce Knowles (also executive producer)
Sony DVD

The crucial clue is right up front in Darnell Johnson’s cinematic riff on the legend of Chess Records, the label which recorded the music which defined Chicago blues in the 1950s: a card telling us that it’s ‘based on a true story.’ Key-word: BASED. Cadillac Records is emphatically not a historically-accurate drama-doc: it’s a Hollywood fantasia which may indeed be set in dusty Mississippi and grimy South Side Chicago, but which actually takes place in a parallel universe where important characters either don’t exist or fulfil roles often markedly different from the ones they played in our world.

In other words: the less purist-picky you are about yer actual factage, the better a time you’ll have. Johnson has taken hammer and chisel to a vast, craggy lump of cultural history and carved from it a more-or-less comprehensible slice of movie story-telling. Musical director Steve Jordan supplies uncanny recreations of the epochal original recordings — men of the match: former fabulous Thunderbird Kim Wilson for his scarily accurate evocation of loose-cannon harp genius Little Walter’s harmonica work, and Howlin’ Wolf’s late guitarist Hubert Sumlin for his glorious resurrection of the riffs of his younger self. Art-directed to the back teeth, it’s frankly as gorgeous to look at as it is to listen to. Too gorgeous, if anything: label founder Leonard Chess was a stocky, stubby, cigar-chomping sweathog rather than the lean, sensitive, liquid-eyed dreamboat portrayed here by Adrien Brody. And, while Beyonce Knowles — without whose major crowd-pulling prowess (plus her financial commitment as executive producer), the movie probably would never even have gotten made — delivers an admirably gutsy, committed performance as the label’s leading lady Etta James, she’s at least four times better-looking than the chubby, moon-faced real thing and sings about a quarter as well.

So the story simplifies out into the tale of how the trajectory of vernacular music was changed by the team-up of two ambitious young men: a Polish-Jewish would-be entrepreneur (Brody’s Len Chess, of course) and a talented Delta sharecropper/musician who join forces in the late 1940s. Jeffrey Wright (recognisable to many as Felix Leiter in the Daniel Craig 007 movies) is efficient and effective as Muddy Waters despite rarely evoking the full majesty of the Big Mud’s gravitas and charisma. If they’re the daddies, they have troubled kids (and their Daddy Issues) to deal with: Knowles’ insecure, addiction-prone Etta James and Columbus Short’s febrile evocation of the gradually disintegrating Little Walter. Cedric The Entertainer is massively stolid as bassist/songwriter Willie Dixon (though his character has far less influence on the Chess story than his real-life counterpart did); Mos Def does a lovely turn as Chuck Berry, whose verging-on-rockabilly R&B/country fusion breaks the label through to white kids; and Eamonn Walker comes within a nose-hair of stealing the whole movie with his gravel-voiced, gimlet-eyed Howlin’ Wolf, powerful and commanding enough to credibly challenge Muddy’s Godfather status.

The title, by the way, derives from Chess’s habit of buying his stars flash Cadillacs (and bunging them the odd wedge of cash) as opposed to paying proper royalties. The label’s formal accounting veered between dodgy and non-existent: that much, at least, is accurate. To enumerate the outrageous liberties (of both omission and commission) which Johnson’s screenplay takes with historical verity would have us all here for most of the night. Suffice it to say that, if appreciated for what it is rather what it isn’t, Cadillac Records is Big Fun: a failure, (not least because of its absurdly melodramatic daytime-TV climax) but an honourable and enjoyable one nonetheless.

Have moicy!


3/5

CSM’s Choice: Norman Watt-Roy storms the Half Moon, Putney – review

Norman Watt-Roy at the Half Moon, Putney,

Charles Shaar Murray reviews
NORMAN WATT-ROY

Half Moon, Putney
June 24, 2014

By all accounts, the veteran master bassist — I’ll repeat that: MASTER BASSIST — Norman Watt-Roy was crapping Land Rovers before he took the stage of Sahf Landan’s hallowed Half Moon for his first gig in over a year as frontman for his own band. With Wilko Johnson’s recuperation from miracle surgery leaving a hole in Norman’s normally busy schedule and coinciding with the release of a rather impressive solo album, Faith & Grace, to promote, it was time for Norman to take centre-stage. Hence panic attack.

He needn’t have worried. From beginning to end of the set, he and his band — drummer Asaf Sirkis, keyboard guy Frank Harrison and Gilad Atzmon (who produced and co-arranged the album) on saxes and accordion — were loudly and lovingly received by a near-capacity house in which everybody present seemed to be fully paid-up fans of The Blockheads, Wilko or (in most cases) both.

Repertoire: beginning and encoring with Ian Dury’s Hit me With Your Rhythm Stick and, in between, a mix of crowd-pleasing faves drawn from the Wilko and Dury catalogues and the jazzfunkier Faith & Grace material, including Jaco Pastorius’ John And Mary (performed as a tribute to a key influence), the autobiographical Me, My Bass and I and the stunning Norman! Norman! (with Atzmon leading the title chant), in which he pounded seven shades of used food out of a few riffs which he’d contributed uncredited to other people’s records, notably Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Relax and The Clash’s Magnificent Seven.

The band gave Watt-Roy plenty of both space and support. The sure-footed (and sure-handed!) Sirkis locked into the leader’s bass like a very tight thing indeed; Harrison restricted himself to cushy chordal beds (apart from the odd fleetfingered solo) and the burly, bespectacled Atzmon displayed his unparalleled instinct for knowing when to chip in a tersely appropriate riff, when to blast out a characteristically formidable tenor solo … and when to lay out. As for yer man himself, you might feel that a sax/keys/bass drums quartet in which the featured instrumentalist is the bass player might seem overly sparse and skeletal … and you’d be wrong. Watt-Roy’s consistently surprising sonic and harmonic invention, his tautly muscular sound and balletically agile playing render him as compelling as a featured artist as he is in his more familiar sideman role . Plus (as anyone who’s ever seen him with either Wilko or the Blockheads will know) he’s almost as much fun to watch as he is to hear. He’s not exactly a singer (yet) … but his voice has charm and character and his phrasing is a delight.

There’s an ancient cartoon of a prisoner being grilled in a cell by a couple of interrogators. Next to the prisoner is a guy playing a bass. One interrogator tells the other, “Everybody talks during the bass solo.” Not when it’s Norman Watt-Roy they don’t. He is, after all … NORMAN! NORMAN!

If Jeff Beck ever again performs with a male bassist (let alone one not significantly younger than he is) the only real contender would be Norman Watt-Roy. And if Norman was a superhero, it would be Wolverine — because he’s ‘the best at what he does.’


4/5

[Anna writes: Would the photographer who took the great pic of Norman please get in touch re credit and permission? Thanks.]

CSM’s Choice: Rock Stars Stole My Life! by Mark Ellen

Charles Shaar Murray reviews
ROCK STARS STOLE MY LIFE!

Mark Ellen
Coronet, 2014

Any autobiography worth reading (ghosted or not) will reflect the character and personality of its author. It should therefore come as no particular surprise that this account of Mark Ellen’s decades of writing, editing and broadcasting stuff to do with poppy rocky stuff should be bluff, boisterous, bustling, tiggerishly-bouncily energetic, insightful and oft-times coached in urbanely Wodehousean rodomontade. The aforementioned ‘stuff’ began with a stint at the NME and proceeded via a long and winding road which included editing Smash Hits, fronting the Whistle Test and Live Aid and founding Q, Mojo and the much-missed Word. This latter was the best mag of its type you could get: it collapsed just two issues short of what would have been its tenth anniversary, and I miss it both as a reader and as a contributor.

All in all, not bad for a former lumpenhippie devotee of truly awful prog-rock who briefly shared a college rock band with a hog-whimperingly embarrassing Mick Jagger impersonator later better-known as Prime Minister of the UK turned megalomaniac war criminal. The book contains somewhat less about their subsequent encounters than this reader would have liked: Mark being both a diplomatic and a loyal soul, he continued to insist that his former bandmate, Tony Blair, was ‘a good man’ long after the evidence clearly suggested otherwise.

Mark considered himself too old for punk. In fact, he was only a year older than Mick Jones, two years younger than Joe Strummer, three years younger than yr correspondent and considerably the junior of anyone in The Ramones, let alone Patti Smith or Debbie Harry. Despite considering the NME posse a standoffish lot when he first arrived, he evidently felt that I hadn’t been too horrible to him because he subsequently offered me gainful employment on three of the above-mentioned magazines.

As well as being an entertaining, enlightening and anecdote-stuffed ride, Mark’s provided a sobering requiem for a majorly fun era in both music and its attendant media which is rapidly disappearing, its smoke and funk being relentlessly sucked away by the air-conditioning of harsher times.

The Mark Ellen you meet in these pages is, for all practical purposes, the Mark Ellen I first met as a freshfaced lad hanging around the NME office hustling for the chance to write a 300-word gig review. He’s almost as entertaining on the page as he is in RL.


4/5

CSM’s Choice: BB King’s Blues All Around Me: the Autobiography

Charles Shaar Murray reviews
BLUES ALL AROUND ME: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY

BB King with David Ritz
Hodder & Stoughton, 1994

Somehow, this extraordinary memoir slipped through my net on original publication, back when BB was a mere 70 years old. Indeed, when I found it on Charity Shop Row (or a single solitary squid!), I almost passed it by under the impression that I already had it. (Yep, I AM slow on the uptake sometimes: I won’t embarrass myself by revealing how long it took me to figure out why Bill Haley’s band were called The Comets.)

BB King was second only to Louis Armstrong for the ability to combine the roles of Beloved Entertainer and game-changing, globally influential virtuoso: of the ’60s-and-after Rock Guys, only Paul McCartney really came close. Since this book was published, much of his back-story was eloquently depicted in the recent biodoc Life Of Riley, but here on the page — coaxed from him via the alchemy of confidant/confessor David Ritz — the Big B’s narrative takes you further behind that genial, self-deprecating façade than most could possibly have predicted. Until this book was written, B very rarely spoke about the pain in his life: he channelled it via his voice and his guitar. Then he’d smile and thank the ladies and gentlemen.

So here it is: an upbringing (or shall we say ‘non-upbringing’? ‘Semi-upbringing’?) gruelling even by the standards of those born black and poor in the rural Mississippi Delta during the 1920s. The struggle to acquire and master his chosen craft and then turn it first into a means of making a living, and then into a career. No drugging and not that much drinking, but a near-lifelong battle with sex addiction and a massive gambling habit. A cosy-schmoozy showbiz autobiog this most certainly isn’t, but neither does it drip with self-pity or lapse into therapese. Even at his most scarifyingly self-revelatory, B retains both his dignity and his charm.

If, gentle reader, BB King’s work has any significance for you, then try and be smarter than yr correspondent. In another words, don’t leave it 18 years before you read it.


5/5