Music documentaries and biopics are a growing bandwagon, it seems, and I’ve got a list of musts to catch. Meanwhile, Netflix has cottoned on to my interest and threw me Cadillac Records the other night, which I missed when it came out end of 2008.
It’s the story of Chess Records of Chicago, performed by actors and, more importantly, by musicians doing a bit of acting. The story-telling is a bit rough here and there but the soundtrack is terrific.
In the interests of the script, the film lost one Chess brother altogether and skipped the early years of the label – starting in 1950 with My Foolish Heart by jazzer Gene Ammons and his Sextet: http://tinyurl.com/o76j2m4/ – in order to get straight to the beginnings of the electric blues explosion, with Hoochie Coochie Man, by Muddy Waters, in 1954. In fact that jump even skips quite a lot of the story of Muddy Waters and the Chess boys. He had been recording with them for six years before that breakthrough hit, on the Aristocrat label before it became Chess.
The film reminds us that in 1941, way downriver from Chicago, Waters was being recorded by the folk music historian Alan Lomax as a typical country blues guitarist. He got his first electric guitar in 1946. But the band of his best records did not come together until 1953.
Like half of all the great r’n’b records of Chess’s golden era, 1950-65, Hoochie Coochie Man was written by ex-boxer Willie Dixon, who was originally signed as a performer but became the studio’s chief writer, producer and general fixer. In the film, he becomes a narrator, played by an American comedian called Cedric the Entertainer, although you could have sworn it was Forest Whitaker. He tells us: “First time a girl took off her underwear and threw it on stage, it was on account of the blues. But when the white girls started doing it, they called it rock and roll.”
The point is underlined towards the end of the film, when the Chess musicians find themselves losing sales to young white boys who are not only copying their style but in some cases have apparently stolen their songs, as if their rights do not matter. For example, we hear Chuck Berry, played by Mos Def, complaining , that Surfin’ Safari by the Beach Boys is Sweet Little Sixteen with new lyrics and, in fact, he did later win a share in the credits and royalties for the song. Willie Dixon also eventually won a claim against Led Zeppelin, for ideas they borrowed for Whole Lotta Love.
Chuck Berry was particularly incensed because he already had a young white audience of his own. The film suggests his crossover appeal, which got segregated audiences tearing down the ropes between them, was a significant driver of change. It also has a scene, presumably based on reality, which involves Berry turning up to play at a country’n’western venue which has assumed he is white.
White r’n’b turns out to be a cloud with a silver lining, by the way. The film ends with Chess musicians finding an adoring new audience waiting for them in Europe.
To us in the UK, Muddy Waters has a folksy cuddly image. But in the film, played by Jeffrey Wright, he is a hard-driving rocker and a ruthless womaniser. And the harmonica man who became famous alongside him, the harmless-sounding Little Walter Jacobs, is shown to be dangerous as hell – high as a kite and armed to his gold-filled teeth.
Beyoncé Knowles, still needing two names at that point, does well to get over both the sex appeal and the sound appeal of Etta James.
But for me, the standout performance is Eamonn Walker, an English actor from West Indian parentage, as Howling Wolf. He does not quite have the physical size for the part but he walks big, and his recreation of the excitement of Smokestack Lightning performed live, in a club setting, is sensational. If I buy the soundtrack of the film, I will need the double-CD version to get it. Meanwhile, you can hear one of several YouTube postings of it at http://tinyurl.com/moaholu/
To my surprise, I find Cadillac Records was written and directed by a young African-American woman, Darnell Martin. Must check out her other work.
Borrowed picture of Eamonn Walker as Howlin’ Wolf.