Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Cadillac Records

Year 2, Day 4 - 1/4/10 - Movie #369

BEFORE: I enjoyed some of what I call "stunt casting" in last night's film, so here's a film with a lot more of it - featuring stars of today playing the recording artists of the 1950's, like Beyonce as Etta James, and Cedric the Entertainer as Willie Dixon.

THE PLOT: Chronicles the rise of Chess Records and its recording artists.

AFTER: I dug this one, because I didn't know much about the history of Chess Records, or who recorded on that label. The central figures in the movie are the label's founder, Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody, last seen by me in "The Pianist") and Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright). Other musicians come and go, like the aforementioned Willie Dixon and Etta James, and Howlin' Wolf, played in a very scary fashion by Eamonn Walker (Rev. Said from HBO's "Oz").

The film takes its name from Leonard Chess' affinity for Cadillacs, and he likes to buy one for his recording artists whenever they score a hit record. However, in retrospect, they might have been better off with some royalty payments. The label scores by recording what's known at the time as "race music" (later called folk or blues) and bringing it from the Chicago clubs to the radio stations and record stores. Along the way, white people take notice of black music, and the cause of civil rights is advanced somewhat.

The music scene kicks into high gear (and so does the movie) when Chuck Berry (Mos Def) appears on the scene. This is the first time I've been able to stand this guy's acting, after watching him ruin "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" and "Be Kind Rewind". But once Chuck speeds up the blues riffs to create rock 'n roll and starts duckwalking across "American Bandstand", the racial divide is breached, white people and black people can finally dance together, and all the world's problems get solved - gee, why didn't Chuck Berry ever get a Nobel Peace Prize?

Well, see, that's where Fame once again proves to be a fickle mistress. Chuck Berry liked the young white girls, and got arrested for transporting a minor across state lines. Muddy Waters is seen sleeping around, too, just not with underage white girls. And Etta James was apparently the Whitney Houston of the 1950's, in more ways than one.

Time marches on, and the blues fell out of vogue, then back in when covered by the Rolling Stones, who show up at the door one day to jam with the Chess artists. Eventually, Chuck Berry sued the Beach Boys for ripping off his "Sweet Little Sixteen" riffs in "Surfin' U.S.A.", (and later John Lennon for stealing lyrics for "Come Together" from "You Can't Catch Me") and Howlin' Wolf sued Led Zeppelin for turning "Killing Floor" into "The Lemon Song" and other similar offenses.

The movie compresses a lot into a short movie, so I'm sure a lot got left out (Bo Diddley, for one...) but at least these guys knew how to party along the way, with their drinking and drugging and sleeping around. Remember, kids, you HAVE to pay your dues if you want to sing the blues. Don't even TRY to sing the blues if you're not current on your dues.

Cameos from not one but TWO stars of "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" - both Vincent D'Onofrio and Eric Bogosian play DJs who agree to play Muddy Waters music (for a fee, of course...) and also my bud, character actor Jay O. Sanders in a tiny role as the father of a girl Leonard Chess is interested in, early in the picture.

RATING: 7 out of 10 harmonicas

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