by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The film was Cadillac Records, an intriguing and frustrating production that, like so many movies today, took a potentially fascinating story and failed to do it justice but still managed to entertain. The story was the history of Chess Records, the pioneering blues label from Chicago that helped launch the rock ’n’ roll revolution — launched it single-handedly if writer-director Darnell Martin’s script is to be believed, which is part of this film’s problem. It all starts in 1941, when Alan Lomax’s field-recording project reaches Mississippi and the plantation where McKinley Morganfield (Jeffrey Wright) works as a cotton picker; Lomax and his partner make some records with the man, and inspire him to leave the fields, make his way to Chicago and try to make it as a street musician there.
At the same time Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody, who took the part after Matt Dillon backed out at the last minute) is told by his girlfriend’s father that he has no intention of letting his daughter marry someone from the same dirt-poor Polish Jew origins as himself, and he decides to make his fortune by opening a nightclub that presents Black musicians for an all-Black clientele. He opens the Macumba in Chicago and hires Muddy Waters — as Morganfield now calls himself — who in the meantime has met a woman named Geneva Wade (Gabrielle Union) and started playing electric guitar, which has made him more audible and more exciting as a busker. Waters in turn puts together a band that includes 17-year-old harmonica player Little Walter (Columbus Short), and they become sensations at Chess’s club — but for mysterious reasons (at least ones Martin never quite explains, though it’s at least hinted that Chess did it deliberately to get money from the insurance for seed capital for his new venture) the Macumba burns down and Chess’s next idea is to open a record company, at first called Aristocrat and later Chess, to showcase Waters and other Chicago blues artists to crack the Black record market nationwide. Leonard Chess and Muddy Waters tour the South and outright bribe disc jockeys to play Waters’ first record, “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” and they achieve their goal of nationwide stardom for him — and later break Little Walter as a solo act and also attract other artists to their roster, including Chuck Berry (Mos Def), Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker) and Etta James (Beyoncé Knowles).
The basic outlines of the film’s plot are more or less historically accurate, but there are an awful lot of lacunae — Leonard Chess’s brother Phil, who was his business partner throughout the history of the Chess label until they sold out in 1969 (to a short-lived tape company called GRT), is totally omitted from the dramatis personae, and the only competitor that’s shown is a white woman who supposedly owns a “race-records” company in the South (she’s called something else but it’s pretty clear Martin meant Lillian McMurry of Trumpet Records here), who shows Chess the ropes but balks when he starts bribing D.J.’s, something she proudly boasts she’s never had to do to get her records played. There isn’t any hint of the existence of other race labels at Chess’s level of operations — especially companies like Savoy in New York, Duke in Texas and Modern in Los Angeles; in the real world Modern was Chess’s closest competitor (they fought an intense legal battle over the services of Howlin’ Wolf — thanks to Sam Phillips, the mastermind of the Memphis Recording Service and Sun Records, who made Wolf’s first records and licensed some of the masters to Modern and some to Chess — sometimes different records of the same songs under different titles! — before Phillips founded Sun and achieved his greatest claim to fame by signing Elvis Presley) and, as Chess did with Waters, Modern rode to the top of the R&B charts on the strength of their signature artist, B. B. King.
I can’t fault Cadillac Records for its concision — it lasts 109 minutes, enviably short for a modern movie (all too many films being made today stretch themselves out far longer than their story material can sustain interest, perhaps because movie tickets are so expensive today studios feel that they need to offer audiences a long enough movie to make it feel like it was worth their money) — but Martin’s story does raise far more dramatic issues than he can resolve in the duration of one film. A great movie could have been made about the rise and fall of Muddy Waters — and about Little Walter’s almost psychopathic character and descent into alcohol, heroin and gunplay — and another great movie could have been made with Leonard Chess as the centerpiece, focusing on the uncanny way his relationships with his stars duplicated the way they’d been treated by the white massas on the plantations from which many of them had come (there’s an intriguing hint of this when Chess and Chuck Berry meet Alan Freed — who demanded a one-third writing credit on “Maybelline” as his price for playing the disc — and Freed says “I’m going to make you [Berry] famous and you [Chess] rich,” and Mos Def’s double-take at that line is precious).
Still a third great movie could have been made about Etta James, who was made to look like the film’s central character in the pre-release publicity (largely because Beyoncé was coming off her triumphant performance as Diana Ross — yes, I know they called her something else, but we all knew who it “really” was — in Dreamgirls) but actually doesn’t enter until an hour into this 109-minute movie and initially appears as a blonde-haired Black girl Leonard Chess is trying to pick up sexually and only accidentally discovers that she has a voice. The real Etta James had already not only been making records but had had hits — notably “The Wallflower,” her answer record to Hank Ballard’s “Work with Me, Annie,” for Modern Records in 1955 (indeed, in an insert showing a Chess record moving up the charts, “The Wallflower” is one of the records it passes on its way up), five years before she signed with Chess. She gets to sing three of Etta James’ real Chess recordings — “All I Could Do Was Cry” (which James sang superbly but which Tina Turner sang even better in a Black-on-Black cover), “At Last” (which I was surprised Martin’s script did not mention was a cover of a 1940’s Glenn Miller hit!) and “I’d Rather Be Blind,” and she has a shot at a crossover career like Dinah Washington achieved before her and Aretha Franklin did later, only she blows it on heroin.
The film ends with Leonard Chess being beaten by Black Power thugs outside his office — supposedly because they resented the white guy who made all that money off Black talent — and deciding the time had come to sell out, whereupon he has a heart attack in the car as he’s driving away from the studio for the last time (a transparent movie device — the real Leonard Chess lived for about a year after he sold the company). It’s ironic that Beyoncé’s casting came in for a good deal of criticism (including from the real Etta James, who’s still alive and active) when she’s the only person in the movie who really sings with soul — when the other performers (all of whom did their own singing in their roles) came on, I was impressed by the accuracy of their impersonations; when Beyoncé sang “All I Could Do Was Cry,” I got goosebumps. I could have lived without the intimations of an affair between Leonard Chess and Etta James — when she was interviewed by Arnold Shaw for his invaluable R&B history, Honkers and Shouters, she made her true feelings about Leonard Chess all too clear:
“The Chess brothers didn’t know A from Z in a beat. Leonard Chess would get in the booth with me while I was recording, and when I would get to a part where he thought I should squawl or scream ‘wheeawow!’ he’d punch me in the side. I mean literally punch me. Or he’d pinch me real hard, so I’d go ‘yeeeow.’ And whatever tune had the most ‘ooooch’ or ‘eeech’ or whatever, that’s the tune he thought was going to be the hit.
“Then he’d sit there and listen to the playback, and he wouldn’t pat his foot until I’d seen him sneaking a look at my foot. He’d have to look around and see if my foot was patting. And if he couldn’t see it patting, he’d say, ‘Etta, I don’t think that tune’s any good.’ And then I’d wait until some old jive tune that wasn’t anything came on, and I’d pat my foot and say, ‘How do you like that one?’ And he’d say, ‘That’s it! That’s going to be the hit record! Believe what Leonard tells you!’ He knew nothing about it.”
I could also have used some more intimations of the bond that did exist between Leonard Chess and his musicians — the fact that both came from oppressed minorities (when one of the musicians tries to explain racism to Chess, I would have wanted Martin to have Chess say, “Look, I’m Jewish, and a lot of the people who don’t like you don’t like us, either!”) As it stands, Cadillac Records is a great piece of entertainment (the titular car itself becomes an intriguing symbol of wealth, success and aspiration throughout the film) but one that tantalizes more than it fulfills — the sort of movie that plays around with the facts but leaves you with the feeling that you’re not getting the “real” story even though you’re getting a lot more of it than you would have when Chess Records was still a going concern and its artists were at the top of their game.