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Saying Leonard Chess discovered Etta James, Muddy Waters, Little Walter
and Howlin' Wolf is like saying George Washington discovered America.
They all recorded in studios before they recorded at Chess. According
to this movie, Muddy and Willie don't fly to England until 1967. It was
1958; ask Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger and Jimmy Page among others. Not
only does this movie get a lot wrong by misconstruing the facts, it
leaves out a couple the bigger players like Sonny Boy Williamson and
Big Bill Broonzy. If you want to hear Etta at her best, listen to the
live version of "Baby, What You Want Me To Do". Beyonce couldn't touch
that. Spike Lee could do this movie with the same actors (except
Beyonce, please use Sharon Jones) and win a Grammy.
The real story of what these people went through doesn't need to be dramatized or exaggerated, it's a great story as is. Read some books.
Pretty much everything in this movie is the work of fiction. It reminds
me of one of those Simpsons episodes where a TV studio does a biopic
and makes up half the story for 'dramatic effect'. But this is even
worse- honestly it was bad enough that the stories were fictional, but
they are also just an insult to the people (for some strange reason(!)
though all except the white studio owner that is, who was a hopeless
romantic, who was also apparently the pioneer of the Chicago
blues...all things to all men. He was a saint, everyone else, the
musicians were anything but(!)) Let's get some facts clear- Leonard
Chess set up the company with his brother, after working at another
company Aristocrat Records. It was here they worked with Muddy Waters.
So no- Muddy didn't meet Little Walter on the street and bring him into
his house. And no, little Walter didn't have the hots for Muddy's wife
Geneva. Although Leonard Chess was very much hands on when he started
the company, by all accounts the guy who really pioneered the classic
sound of the records was Willie Dixon. Who is criminally underused and
treated as a one trick pony who could only write blues songs. He left
in the late 50's to work at Cobra records after being underpaid by
Chess- listen to those Cobra records and those at Chess- they sound
pretty similar right? That's because Willie Dixon was the pioneer-
Leonard Chess was the man stuck in the past.
One example of the film's dreadful portrayal of the individuals is the fictional scene where Muddy Waters meets Leonard Chess (ignoring their prior recording work at Aristocrat records). Little Walter is going to shoot another harp player who has hit him, and Muddy stands in his way. Yet the only story remotely like this in REALITY is when a friend of Little Walter's told his wife to leave a club, and she sat by Howlin' Wolf and refused to go. Little Walter was performing on stage, and had seen Howlin' Wolf get his gun out. He jumped down stage and told Wolf that if he was going to shoot his friend, he'd have to shoot him. He later arranged a meeting between his friend and Wolf, who in fact became friends despite the altercation. Which is why this movie is so frustrating- the REAL lives of these people is nothing short of fascinating, exciting and a great background to their music. By all accounts Little Walter was a bit of a loose cannon, but he was also a real person- not a one-dimensional madman who was out to destroy himself and everyone else around him. The story told in the movie is everything that is wrong with Hollywood- overblown, turgid and full of dreadful 'emotional' scenes (everything with Brody and Beyonce is so clichéd and hammed up that its cringe worthy). While the story here is just dull, the real stories have managed to fill biographies dedicated to each of these artists.
Some more inaccuracies; Little Walter never shot someone just for touring under his name- once again he was no angel, but neither does it seem was he a murderer as the movie suggests. Howlin' Wolf actually stayed with Muddy Waters when he first moved to Chicago- and sometimes they were friends, others professional rivals. Yet Muddy is chosen to be some kind of protagonist who we are supposed to feel sympathy for when another man tries to take his crown. Even worse some of the MORE fascinating characters (with all due respect to Leonard 'bore fest' Chess and Muddy Waters) of Bo Diddley, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Ike Turner or Jackie Brenston are completely ignored. Because these people were irrelevant- Chuck Berry invented Rock N Roll music all on his lonesome and no one else laid the groundwork for that (an especially contrived piece of storytelling when you consider that these guys recorded their seminal records at Chess.) But worst of all is the love story. The entire second half of the movie is dedicated to Etta James and Leonard Chess. Who by the way never had any kind of love affair- and neither did they speak like buffoons to each other about their 'feelings'. Etta James had already been a successful star before Chess- her career if anything went down hill when she joined. One of the more annoying things is that the actors do their own singing- few of them are up to the task. Beyonce is simply dreadful as Etta James vocal imitator. On a microcosm it is a perfect representation of why this is an awful movie. Beyonce's voice is overblown, she has no ability to control her vocal range without trying to jump from top to bottom every two seconds, and ultimately all the soul she tries to put on is clearly just that- put on. She doesn't have the understatement of Etta, the ability to lull you into a false sense of security before taking her voice from 0-60 in a second, and neither does she have that almost primal quality that Etta had back then. Like this movie, Beyonce's performance is overblown and lacks any character or soul.
I understand that some liberties might be taken with a story. For example, for what it is the Temptations biopic is enjoyable- yes there are discrepancies and some things that should have been more central to the story, but it did a good impression of the music and the stories behind them. Cadillac Records however is like the He-Man Masters of the Universe of music biopics- it has little to do with the source material except sharing the names and likenesses of the characters, but any representation of the source material is superficial at best. And that's the only word that really can describe this movie- superficial. You have been warned.
"Cadillac Records" is a fun, fast, flashy introduction to the world of
Chess Records. In the 1950s, Leonard Chess, a Polish-born Jew in
Chicago, along with his brother Phil (not seen in this film) produced
"race" records by African American blues and rock and roll legends like
Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Chuck Berry and Etta James.
These artists' work had huge impact on popular music; the Rolling Stones are shown on a pilgrimage to Chess Studio. Their music is great and is played all but non-stop on the soundtrack, which is a very good thing. Flashy glimpses into the glamorous styles of the 1950s and 60s include loving looks at the many Cadillacs Chess gives as gifts to his star performers.
Jeffrey Wright is quietly compelling as Muddy Waters. Mos Def is a charming Chuck Berry; he really communicates the charisma that Berry exuded to his adoring female fans. Eamonn Walker is terrific, and appropriately intimidating, as Howlin' Wolf. Walker electrifies the screen with his every morsel of screen time; I wish that after they'd finished "Cadillac Records," they had just kept the sets up and kept the cameras running and began a biography of Howlin' Wolf with Walker in the lead. Beyonce Knowles is very beautiful and pays worthy tribute to Etta James, the singer she plays.
"Cadillac Records" feels a bit rushed, and not as deep and probing as it could have been. Perhaps much backstory was cut out? A shame, because Adrien Brody, a brilliant and compelling actor, is not given enough to do.
So much more could and should have been said about Chess the man and his motivations, and the complex relationship he had with his singers. There is the story that Chess put Muddy Waters to work painting his ceiling. Some accused him of paternalism; curious viewers are advised to pick up Nadine Cohodas' book "Spinning Blues into Gold: The Chess Brothers and the Legendary Chess Records." Also, "Cadillac Records" can't avoid the clichés inherent in music biopics: the innocent character is introduced to drugs for the first time, and is ruined by them; the self destructiveness of brilliant people, the exhilarating, brutal, rags-to-riches-to-obscurity trajectory of show biz careers. For all that, "Cadillac Records" is fun and it makes you want to learn more about an important cultural moment in American history.
While this film lacks an original framework (it's "Ray" and "La Bamba"
and "Hot Wax" and "Why Do Fools Fall in Love"....), both the subject--a
seminal recording label--and the performances make this electrifying
I can't speak to the accuracy of its historical facts regarding Leonard Chess' exploitation of some of music's largest figures, but the screenplay zooms along and takes us with it. Jeffrey Wright finally gets a role that hopefully will secure his stature. It's overdue. As Muddy Waters his towering strength both as a character and an actor are very impressive here. As well, the entire supporting cast (and it's a large cast) really rise to the occasion. Columbus Short as Little Walter and Gabrielle Union as Water's wife are equally impressive. And in smaller roles, Eamonn Walker as Howlin' Wolf and Mos Def as Chuck Berry nearly steal the show.
I've never been much of a fan of Adrien Brody, but in the first half of the film, he's quite effective. It's only when Beyoncé Knowles arrives that he stumbles, and who can blame him. Ms. Knowles takes a sensational role and scorches the screen. As the conflicted and troubled Etta James, there's a scene on a livingroom floor in front of a fireplace that should win Ms. Knowles many awards. And we're given a generous helping of sensational James' track very well covered by Ms. Knowles.
When we watch America's taste in music change--both before and after the centerpiece of this story--we're at first exhilarated at the discovery of this "new" form of music, and when it wanes and the lives that were propelled to stardom flag, we feel an enormous sadness. But what we know today--that these individuals became legends--is of great consolation.
I don't care that the structure is straightforward. The recreation of the period and it's attitudes are spot on, and the cinematography by Anastas N. Michos make the film rise above any weakness in the script.
Then, there's the soundtrack....
As a piece of entertainment this movie may be OK. But why take REAL names of REAL people (some of them fortunately are still living) to tell a story which, for the most part, is completely inaccurate. IMDb reviewer Davo Sambo has rightly pointed out the most blatant inaccuracies that this film carries. But as I have seen and met most of the artists involved in the plot (and for some of them - like Muddy who went dining at my home in Lyon (France) - I've had the fortune to know them personally) what worries me the most is that their personnality are also very inaccurate. For instance, Muddy who had an incredible charisma is portrayed here essentially as a very tepid character who thinks mostly to chase women. And Howlin' Wolf - a tough man certainly but a very bright and articulate one - is here portrayed as the terrorizing Wolf he PLAYED on stage and never out stage. The true story of the Chess saga (and the Chicago blues) is yet to be told properly
It's hard to get a feel for a specific time and period in movies let
alone an actual mood of a particular music. The best bio-pics on
musicians tend to get it just about right (Bird, Sid & Nancy, The
Doors, Walk the Line) even if the films aren't great or, even worse,
have those tired old conventions of real-life people fit in tidy
fashion for a 2-hour storyline. Sometimes all we can hope for is that
they get the mood right, and even that isn't attained; some years back
the wildly over-praised Ray had strong performances but, to me, didn't
really capture that feel of what it was like to be in the midst of
something really spectacular- we only saw it being great for Ray
Charles (not that his music didn't help the movie, somewhat besides the
There's an attitude to a kind of music, whether it's punk or jazz or psychedelic rock or even in "wtf" mode in I'm Not There. The best thing about Cadillac Records, the thing that will have me go back and watch it again more than anything, is that it captures what it was like to be around the one of the significant blues explosions in America. There was always blues in the US in the 20th century, but it grew steadily, out of sorrow and bad days and nights and hate and love gone bad or good for African Americans. Cadillac Records covers some of the crucial blues artists- Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Chuck Berry (the cross-over), Willie Dixon, Etta James- and how their personalities were shaped by whatever was around them, and then into the songs. We may not get an entire life story out of all those in the film, but unlike Walk the Line or Ray we don't need it at all to know these people, or the characters.
The actors, it should be said, really do a lot of heavy lifting here. The music, it goes without saying, is spectacular and wonderful and often shown as developing out of a myriad of things (frustration, sadness, joy, craziness, anguish, love), but the script does follow some of those lines that are troublesome in bio-pics (one character, Little Walter, is the proverbial black sheep and that's almost all he is, and there's the obvious dippings in-and-out of relationship things).
So, the actors fill in the gaps in the formula, and make it far more enjoyable and full of life than it might have in other hands; this is the wisdom of the director Darnell Martin, usually a TV director. He casts not entirely on if they exactly fit the original people, but if they got the right stuff for the particular person: Muddy Waters, the real bad-ass of the group and the real main character of the story, is given powerhouse form by Jeffrey Wright in every frame; Beyonce Knowles, while hardly the worst thing in Dreamgirls, completely redeems herself and then some as Etta James, going all out in a full-fleshed out dramatic performance (how well she sings is a given); Columbus Short, given the walking cliché of Little, takes it for everything it's worth, and it is never less than interesting; Eaommon Walker (from Oz) is great as Howlin' Wolf in any scene; Mos Def finds the line of hamming it up and playing it for real for Chuck Berry, and makes it work all the way; Adrien Brody, as the token white main player, is given not a lot to work with either, but is also riveting and captivating and a reminder of why he won the Oscar years back.
But with all this gushing about the actors, I shouldn't forget about the music, the blues, all of it lovingly depicted (maybe at times too lovingly- Cedric's narration) while also in rightful critical form on how the blues got completely ripped off by any (arguably talented) rock band waiting in the wings. You can feel the blues dripping off the screen in some scenes in the first half of the film, the scenes with Waters playing in the club or just in his bedroom, or Chuck Berry playing on stage with a mixed crowd, or the dialog in certain scenes. As a fan of the blues, it hit its target right on spot while hopefully converting some who don't know Muddy Waters or Howlin Wolfs' catalogs like Ray Charles. One more cliché to note, a positive one: it gets you whistling as you leave the theater and tapping your feet at your seat. That's good enough sometimes.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Cadillac Records is really the story of Chess Records founded by a
businessman named Leonard Chess who signed some of the biggest black
entertainers in the music business during the 50s and 60s. Supposedly
Chess Records came to be known as Cadillac Records due to Chess's
penchant for paying his musicians with Cadillacs and not cash.
I've read that there were quite a few liberties taken with the historical record in composing the screenplay. This is particularly true of Leonard Chess (played by a miscast Adrien Brody) who purportedly short-changed the musicians who were under contract to him (the Chess in "Cadillac Records" is more of a good-natured cheerleader who always tries to be a great friend to the musicians he hires).
The chief flaw of Cadillac Records is that it doesn't have a central protagonist. Just as we're getting used to Muddy Waters as the main character, he's supplanted by Little Walter and Howlin Wolf. Then suddenly Chuck Berry takes the spotlight only to be replaced by Etta James. Unfortunately, the shelf life of musicians (and even big time musicians) is not very long--usually only a few years in the spotlight.
Mos Def is excellent as a wild and creative Chuck Berry but his screen time is much too short for such a seminal figure. Each of the four main characters have one or two things that happen to them that's quite interesting. With Chuck Berry, it's the fact that he was arrested for violating the Mann Act--having sex with underage girls and traveling over interstate lines. Little Walter ends up shooting a man for simply using his name in a musical group (I couldn't understand why there was no investigation into that shooting). In addition to Muddy Water's womanizing, there's also some attention paid to his financial problems that occurred after he no longer was churning out hit records.
While Beyonce looks real fine as Etta James, her acting is a bit over the top as she portrays the singer's descent into heroin addiction. I didn't buy Leonard Chess's flirtation with Etta James and Brody and Beyonce simply have no chemistry together.
Cadillac Records is narrated by songwriter Willie Dixon played by Cedric the Entertainer. The film needs a narrator to compensate for the lack of a strong story arc. Nonetheless, Cadillac Records is worth seeing for the music and the recreation of a bygone era. Just don't expect any drama that will knock your socks off!
The trouble with these kind of movies is that they will never satisfy
the purists among us. OK so maybe it glosses over the facts and makes
the history all shiny and Hollywood, but I will see how many people
will come away from this movie WANTING to find out more about the
history of blues.
So what if its not perfect, if you want a perfect history you will go and buy a documentary on the subject. I want to be entertained when I watch a movie not sit there and critique history.
I think all the performances in the movie are convincing and great. I especially loved Beyonce, she just seems to ooze talent, although the on-screen time is shorter compared to Dreamgirls, she is extremely commanding.
As for the covering Etta's song, these are outstanding. I am in love with the songs all over again, and in love with these versions.
Anyone remember those old K-Tel compilation albums with the hits slightly sped up so the K-Tel folks could pack in more songs? CADILLAC RECORDS (CR) gives a similar treatment to the story of Chess Records, nicknamed "Cadillac Records" because the Polish-American Chess brothers, Leonard and Phil (Adrien Brody and Norman Reedus, reunited from the film SIX WAYS TO Sunday), would give the artists Caddies as rewards -- out of the artists' own royalties! Chess Records got the music of Muddy Waters, Etta James, Chuck Berry, and other seminal R&B performers out to the general public, climbing the charts as what were then called "race records." Perhaps because of time and/or money constraints, writer/director Darnell Martin seems to rush through the Chess stars' highs (sometimes literally, with scenes of drug and/or alcohol abuse) and lows, forcing her to condense her subjects' dramatic life stories to the point where they don't even seem to age (other than a few perfunctory silver streaks visible in Brody's hair late in the film) despite the indication that years have passed. Even the Chess brothers' own story is only half-told, with the focus being on Leonard as Phil is rendered all but invisible. Heck, for half the film, I thought Phil was just another sound engineer, since we in the audience only ever see him during recording sessions! That said, I still found a lot to like about CR. I was riveted and moved by the events and the performances, and the musical numbers kick butt; I want the soundtrack (maybe even the original versions of the songs :-))! Jeffrey Wright commands the screen as Muddy Waters, who becomes Chess Records' first star, complete with groupies. He comes home one night to find wife Geneva (sympathetically played by Gabrielle Union) with a baby in her arms -- left there by a fan who says Muddy's the father. Mos Def adds sly humor as Chuck Berry. Eamonn Walker is downright scary as Muddy's rival, Howlin' Wolf. Columbus Short breaks your heart and drives you crazy all at once as Little Walter, whose lack of a mother or self-discipline proves to be his tragic flaw. Beyoncé Knowles shows she has range as both an actress and a singer in her fiery, heartrending portrayal of the talented but troubled Etta James. Leonard tries to help Etta to learn to "sing the blues, not live it," but with Etta's emotional baggage, that's easier said than done. Things only get more complicated when she and Leonard become attracted to each other despite his having a sweet, pretty wife, Revetta (Emmanuelle Chriqui). I'm not surprised that in real life, Etta herself gave her blessing to Beyoncé's soulful rendition of "At Last," the ultimate make-out song and Presidential inauguration anthem! :-) Although Leonard Chess is almost more like a host here than a well-drawn character, Brody nevertheless works well with the cast and has great chemistry with Beyoncé. In fact, he gets a good amount of on screen love action, including a nude scene with the fetching Chriqui! :-)
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
(Synopsis) This movie is based on the true story of how a small music
recording studio, Chess Records, located on the south side of Chicago,
began recording blues music with Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright) and
Little Walter (Columbus Short) in 1947, and eventually gave birth to
rock and roll in 1955 with Chuck Berry (Mos Def). Record producer,
Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody) has an ear for this different type of
music, and believes he can cash in by signing up new talent such as
songwriter, Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer), Howlin' Wolf (Eamonn
Walker), and Etta James (Beyonce Knowles). Leonard Chess makes all of
his artist part of his family and takes care of them. This is not an
easy job for him, because they spend a small fortune on booze, drugs,
and the high life. When Chuck Berry goes to jail, Leonard is able to
find another talented performer, Etta James, to take his place. In the
late sixties, as their music goes out of favor, Leonard Chess gets out
of the record business.
(My Comment) This story is not a documentary of Chess Records, but a story about their music. The movie title, 'Cadillac Records,' comes from the fact that Leonard Chess would buy his musicians a new Cadillac when they recorded their first hit record and for each new hit. What the artists didn't know was that the cars were being paid from their record royalties. Leonard Chess treated his artists as family, and the line between business and family sometimes causes conflict between them. If you go to see Beyonce in the movie, you may be disappointed, because she only has a limited amount of screen time with about 3 songs. However, you won't be disappointed by her performance and that of Jeffrey Wright. They make you believe they are Etta James and Muddy Waters, and they actually sing their wonderful songs in the movie. The film can only tell a small part of each artist's story in short scenes, but they are very powerful scenes. (Sony Pictures, Run Time 1:48, Rated R)(8/10)
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