I remember hearing a lot about Beyonce Knowles gaining a few extra pounds for her portrayal of Etta James in the film Cadillac Records, and then of course, I remember her singing James’ signature tune, “At Last,” at President Obama’s Inauguration Ball–and who could forget the quasi feud that followed (James said that Knowles was going to get her ass whipped for singing her song, but later reneged, claiming she was just joking around)? I didn’t hear much about the movie–released last December–that brought about all these juicy headlines, so this weekend I decided to Netflix Cadillac Records.
The film is about Chess Records, the Chicago-based label that brought us the names of Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, Chuck Berry, Etta James, and the songwriting prowess of Willie Dixon. If you’re wondering why the film is called Cadillac Records, its founder Leonard Chess (played by Adrien Brody), would buy his artists a Cadillac after they earned their first hit record.
Chess Records’ first success story is the rise to fame of former sharecropper, Muddy Waters (played by Jeffrey Wright)–considered one of the greatest bluesman of all time. He teams up with the meanest harmonica player in Chicago (both figuratively and literally), Little Walter (Columbus Short), and forms the take-no-prisoners band, appropriately titled the Headhunters.
Chess first meets Waters’ crew when they set up their amps in his nightclub, all while another band is performing on stage. A melee ensues, but once Chess hears the sounds of Muddy Waters, he’s hooked for life. Chess takes Waters under his wings, records him in his studio, hits the road, and you can probably guess what happens from here.
As an educational tool Cadillac Records is an excellent look–albeit through the eyes of a big-budget Hollywood movie–at the history of blues and rock-and-roll. Muddy Waters’ soulful blues sound gives way to Chuck Berry’s rock-and-roll stylings, which the Beach Boys end up stealing. Later in the film, we also discover, that Waters inspired a group of English kids to form a band who named themselves after one of his songs–The Rolling Stones (you’ve heard of them, right?).
Unfortunately, Cadillac Records wasn’t able to avoid the pitfall of just about every other music biopic ever made, which is: cram as much as you can into a two-hour movie. The interesting look into Chess and Waters’ relationship starts losing focus once subplots about Chuck Berry (Mos Def) and Etta James (Beyonce Knowles) enter into the equation. Sure, both were part of the Chess Records family, and both are legendary names–portrayed by some current big names in the biz–but Cadillac Records starts feeling like an NBC mini-series halfway through the film.
All in all, the musical performances were enjoyable to watch (although the perfectionist in me did get a little agitated when a performer would stray from their microphone and still sound studio-crisp), and I thought each actor did well representing their respective Chess Records artist. I could have used a little less Etta in the storyline and some more Muddy, especially the can’t-take-your-eyes-off tension between him and fellow bluesman Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker).
As far as music movies go, Cadillac Records doesn’t stray from the blueprint we’ve seen a hundred times, but it does give us a glimpse into the lives of some unheralded recording artists who inspired the household names that Hollywood usually makes movies about.