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Cadillac Records

(Sony Pictures, 2008)

Written and directed by Darnell Martin

This film is infuriating. It leaves out an entire Chess brother. It supports the myth that the Chess studio was always at the final 2120 South Michigan Avenue location, and manages to suggest South Michigan Avenue is little more than a narrow alley. It wasn’t and isn’t.

This movie conflates early Elvis and the 1968 death of Little Walter (among other things) into a single montage. The musicians weren’t just paid in Cadillacs and spending money, though there is an important truth in that; it took years of legal fighting to straighten out the books, to get some financial justice for some of the Chess artists. If casual blues fans take their blues history from this film, blues history is set back—again.

And, of course it gets worse. The golden-hued cotton fields of the delta are filmic pixie dust. Muddy and Walter were not so tight for so long; indeed, Walter walked off a Muddy tour to form his own band. Jeffrey Wright’s Muddy Waters is an awfully earnest fellow, as in so many bio-pic type movies, a one-dimensional man. If you don’t get the flow, the humor, the sociality, the nobility, the vanity, the sensuality of Muddy Waters, you don’t really have him at all. Some critics have suggested that Beyoncé Knowles should get an Academy Award nomination for her anguished, blowsy, falling down, stoned take on Etta James. Bracket the acting, and whether or not it is bathetic, James deserves to have a second and third thought in her head, and we are ourselves no brain media monkeys if we accept this version of her as authoritative. Who and what gets left out and foreshortened in this movie is breathtaking.

Still, if you love the blues, if you have spent some of your life in the times and places of this movie or only visiting them in hours of listening and learning and reflection and whimsy, you should see Cadillac Records. When the pistol goes into the guitar case, the blues is punctuated like the rim shot off the snare. When Walter rolls up in the Caddy with the doors off, the edginess of the whole enterprise is underlined like a bright harmonica squeal. If you get from Cadillac Records the permeable boundary between money, a little money, and no money at all, if you pick up the way that twists the art and the artist, you should have a better handle about who is playing at your blues festival this year and what is making them tick.

I don’t trust the old story, the commonplace, that the American kids of the 1950s, victims of sexual inhibition, cultural constipation, and political stupefaction, were in musical hibernation waiting to be negrified-urbanized-electrified-emotionalized; and when it arrived it overwhelmed the young and the old, the unspeakable truth spoken, the horror of social chaos turned loose, a new market thrown open for business. The fact is, there were always interesting, challenging, de-sublimating things going on in American music and culture. But Cadillac Records needs this commonplace to get its story over onto the arc of fame and fortune. If you are paying attention to the movie, Cadillac Records is a narrative of more basic human exuberance, weakness, genius, frustration, luck, and hustle. That seems truer to me to the world I live in than a tale of the perils of wealth and celebrity, courted, won, lost, and realized.

With all of its omissions and exaggerations, this film probably estimates the right size, the modest but important size, of Chicago’s Chess in shaping our popular cultural world, and doing so tells a story of only very slightly larger than life human beings. I was infuriated and engrossed by this telling.

Review by Dale Clark

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