Charles Shaar Murray reviews
CADILLAC RECORDS (2008)
Written and directed by Darnell Johnson
Jeffrey Wright, Adrien Brody, Beyonce Knowles (also executive producer)
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.