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.]

Felix Dennis, without whom — a requiem

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This just in: Felix Dennis has left the building, departed this plane of existence, passed away. Another man done gone, less than a year after Mick Farren split. (Felix and I both wrote introductions of sorts to Micky’s best-of collection Elvis Died For Somebody’s Sins But Not Mine.) You’ll be seeing summaries of his extraordinary life and career all over mainstream media any second now, but since I pretty much owe what I laughingly refer to as ‘my career’ to Felix, let’s just stick with the personal stuff …

I first met him in 1970 at Richard Neville’s basement at the preliminary editorial meeting for what eventually became the OZ Schoolkids Issue. As the magazine’s business manager and in-house ‘freak with a briefcase’, I was struck by the clash of his pinstripe suit with his Louis XIV hair and wildman beard … and his near-hysterical piratical guffaw.

He was both the most practical and the most hedonistic of the OZ triumvirate: simultaneously brusque and compassionate. When I decided to relocate to London on New Years Day of 1972, it was Felix who put me up, rent-free, in the spare room of his then dwelling at 44 Wandsworth Bridge Road, allowing me unlimited access to his fridge, his library and his record collection, and there I stayed until Felix moved out several months later. By then I was able to roll a decent spliff and I’ve still never flatshared with anyone who had so many girlfriends – or such noisy ones. All he asked in return was that I always made sure there was an untouched pint of milk in the fridge: he needed it for the ulcer he already had in his mid-20s.

Without OZ I might never have found a first home in print: without Felix’s generosity I’ve no idea how I’d have gained my first foothold in London. Many years later I worked for him again, at MacUser, and more recently he helped me out of a massive jam, even though we’d seen very little of each other for decades. ‘We’re not close friends,’ he explained, ‘but we’re old friends.’

He was booked to appear alongside R Crumb and former OZ lawyer Geoffrey Robertson at a panel about the OZ trial which I’ll be hosting on July 14 as part of The British Library’s Comics Unmasked season, but last week we heard that he was unwell and not able to appear. Guess he wasn’t kidding … Felix, if you changed your mind about doing the gig, just saying so would’ve been enough. I therefore intend to dedicate the event to him.

For now: in his honour — a poem. Hail and farewell, Felix …

We only meet at funerals
Fewer of us each time
More and more passengers disembark
As we approach the end of the line

Fewer and fewer chairs required
At each gathering of the clan
How long before we can count ourselves
On the fingers of one hand?

Some of us split long ago
Some of us hang on
Some keep an empty glass on the table
For those already gone

Some of us got famous
Some of us got rich
Some of us just got all fucked up
Ain’t that a bitch?

Some of us remember
When it wasn’t all just for show
Some of us still light a candle
For the dreams of long ago

Some left the party early
But no matter how many are dead
A spliff still burns in the ashtray
For revolutions in the head

CROSSTOWN LIGHTNIN’ RIDE AGAIN Sunday 6 April Oval Tavern, Croydon

… and this Sunday coming (April 6), Buffalo Bill Smith, Marc Jefferies, The Great Pete Miles and yr correspondent are bringing our own brand of funky rocking strickly-dread blues-an’-t’ing ancient and modern to The Oval Tavern 131 Oval Road Croydon CR0 6BR Tel: 020 8686 6023. We hit at 8:30pm. Come early and get ’em in while we get it on …