In telling the story of Chess Records, the Chicago label that specialised in blues, R&B, early rock n’ roll, soul, gospel and jazz throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Darnell Martin’s Cadillac Records often follows the well-trodden path of the music biopic: we see artists leaving poverty behind for fame and fortune, while numerous scenes detail key incidents from their lives, trouble at home, arguments, fights and drug use, all interspersed with re-staged live shows and studio sessions to underline their genius.
The most famous Chess artists are given plenty of time on-screen: Jeffrey Wright turns in a fine performance as Muddy Waters, a key figure in the history of the label, while we also follow the early careers of Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker, captivating), Willie Dixon (Cedric The Entertainer, who also narrates), Little Walter (Columbus Short), Chuck Berry (Mos Def) and more. Some of these actors also sing live; the record producer and multi-instrumentalist Steve Jordan produced the soundtrack, employing a hand-picked band of blues musicians to re-record a number of backing tracks, and the results sounded good to me overall.
Martin – who also wrote the screenplay – attempts to get to grips with several race-related issues, from police brutality and segregation to more industry-specific problems: Berry is apoplectic with rage when the Beach Boys copy his Sweet Little Sixteen riff for their hit Surfin’ U.S.A, for example, although details about subsequent legal wranglings are left until the end credits, which also refer to later actions launched by Chess lawyers against a number of white rock n’ roll, blues and R&B acts. (There’s no truck given to Beach Boy Carl Wilson’s claim that he met Berry in Copenhagen and received approval for the surfing-related hit, though.)
The theme of white men getting rich off the back of black talent, or acting as kingmakers, becomes prevalent when Chess Records begins to enjoy moderate success. There are brief glimpses of the most obvious symbols of white artists ‘stealing’ the sound of black musicians and becoming far more commercially successful as a result (Elvis, The Rolling Stones), while the influence of DJ Alan Freed (Eric Bogosian), who was instrumental in introducing white radio audiences to blues, R&B, early rock n’ roll and much more, is also felt. Most importantly we have Adrien Brody in the lead role as Leonard Chess, the Polish immigrant who co-founded the label, and a man who had to regularly justify the stacks of cash that he was making from his roster of black musicians. The make of car in the film’s title is a reference to the vehicular gifts that Chess would bestow on his prize acts as thanks for their work, and some of the film’s most interesting clashes play out between the artists who happily accept the cars and the money (Waters, for example) and those who refuse (Howlin’ Wolf).
Though much of the acting is excellent, and the music is highlighted in a suitably reverent fashion, ultimately it’s a shame that Martin sticks so closely to the typical musical biopic template (though concentration on an entire label, rather than one individual, is arguably a novelty) and it’s also disappointing that the narration seems to have been penned with dimwits in mind. In addition there are also several glaring historical inaccuracies: the death of Leonard Chess is given an unnecessary melodramatic spin, for example, while his brother and co-founder Phil (Shiloh Fernandez) is unfairly reduced to bit-part status (though he fairs better than Bo Diddley, who doesn’t appear at all). The film also concentrates far too heavily on Etta James (co-executive producer Beyoncé Knowles) during the second half. The singer was an important act in the history of Chess Records but there are times when this feels less like an even appraisal of the label and more like a showcase for the career of Knowles — a versatile performer, sure, but there seems to be a whiff of contractual stipulations here.
Directed by: Darnell Martin.
Written by: Darnell Martin.
Starring: Adrien Brody, Jeffrey Wright, Columbus Short, Beyoncé Knowles, Cedric The Entertainer, Gabrielle Union, Eamonn Walker, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Mos Def, Shiloh Fernandez, Eric Bogosian.
Cinematography: Anastas Michos.
Editing: Peter C. Frank.
Music: Terence Blanchard, Steve Jordan, Various.
Running Time: 104 minutes.