If Leonard Chess hadn’t started selling records out of the back of his Cadillac perhaps we wouldn’t have rock ‘n’ roll today. Well, that might be a stretch, but Chuck Berry did start what Elvis got all the credit for.
Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody) always wanted to amount to something. He opens a black night club to try and make his fortune. He’s approached by a traveling record saleswoman to see if he knows of any black talent that she can record and sell.
Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright) and Little Walter (Columbus Short) are in a band called the All-Star Trio, but they’re known as the headhunters on the circuit. They’re called that because they bring their instruments into other band’s venues and are so good that they get the band playing fired and take their place.
They try this at Chess’ club, but it erupts into gunfire when Little Walter’s hot temper gets the better of him. Chess shows up at Waters’ day job the next day and Muddy thinks that he’s come for money. Chess wants to talk business and has Waters go into the studio and record.
The two then travel around the south selling the record to radio stations. Chess goes on to found Chess Records and gives his recording stars, including Chuck Berry (Mos Def), Etta James (Beyonce), Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker), and tunesmith Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer), Cadillac’s when they sign onto the label. Chess may have given blacks a chance at fame and fortune when others denied them, but his crafty contracts might’ve been more detrimental than the singers imagined.
Cadillac Records might be more of historical fiction the more I read up on it. Did Leonard Chess found a recording company that began out of the back of his car? Yes, but he also did it with his brother Phil who disappears from the film. I think we just get a mention of him, but his scenes have been deleted.
It’s also rather dubious that Chess had an affair with Etta James, but that would’ve been taking a chunk of the dramatics out of the picture if these scenes also ended up on the deleted scenes pile.
I’ve always said that if you want history that you shouldn’t turn to Hollywood. It’s all about the entertainment value and the story of Chess Records did have them, just don’t think this film is gospel. It is an entertaining flick and does showcase some fine talent, both musically and in acting.
My favorite was an amusing turn by Mos Def in Chuck Berry’s shoes. He’s not on the screen much, but Eamonn Walker also interested me as Howlin’ Wolf since he doesn’t seem to fall under Chess’ spell and I wished more might’ve been done on him.
Jeffrey Wright plays Muddy Waters well and it made me wants to go to my local CD Shoppe and get more of his and the other artist’s music. Beyonce probably got the most press, but her portrayal of Etta James really doesn’t come into play till towards the end of the film. As I began to read up on the real history, I began to doubt that the romantic angle with she and Chess was true.
The film has to cram decade’s worth of information into a 109 minute film and it just feels like many are give short shrift. It’s the music that stands above the drama though and Cadillac Records features a great deal of wonderful musical performances, as I said it made me want to get CDs of the artists fictionalized on the screen.
Cadillac Records is presented in anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) and is enhanced for 16×9 televisions. Special features include a commentary with director Darnell Martin, the 26 minute “Playing Chess” about the making of the film, the 15 minute “Once Upon a Blues” about the costume and production design, 5 minutes of deleted scenes, and previews of other New Line DVDs.
Cadillac Records just brushes the surface of Chess Records and may leave you wanting more. It does highlight some of the talent at the iconic music company, but will leave you wanting to track down the great tunes featured on the soundtrack.