Adrien Brody, Jeffery Wright, Columbus Short, Mos Def, Eaamon Walker, Cedric the Entertainer and Beyonce Knowles.
The history of Chess Records over the course of three decades reveals the rise (and occasional fall) of Chicago musical luminaries such as Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry and Etta James, all planting the roots of rock n’ roll…and the notoriety that can come with it.
I love music. I love movies too, but it’s only a close second. The reason why this blog is about movies is because I can wrap my head around that art form. Music is just so wide and varied and freakin’ complicated that I lack the verbiage to document opinions about it. Music just goes on forever, but there is a starting gate somewhere for the first motion picture. I can go from there. Anyway, anyone who knows me knows that I am a rock n’ roll guy. Have been since I got a hold of dad’s Elton John tapes (yes, tapes). Love rock n’ roll; it’s in my DNA. But I do have a great deal of respect for the genre’s progenitors. Cats like Chuck Berry (possibly the world’s first guitar hero. Ask Keith Richards), Louis Jordan (a personal favorite of mine), Bo Diddley, Fats Domino, Ruth Brown and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins—to name a few—I have easily and often cut my teeth on again and again. There could be no rock without these folks.
When I was younger in my music collecting, I was a completist. Got into a band and/or singer I liked? Had to collect the back catalogue. Delving further into sniffing about a band’s roots, I’d investigate their influences. For instance, I discovered Kraftwerk by way of Joy Division by way of New Order. That kind of sifting. I learned that the thrill of the hunt (both finding records and tracing a band’s roots) could be just as bracing as the albums I’d eventually come to wear out.
This detective outcropped to where the music physically came from. As a kid and up until now, I always dug maps. I have an outdated atlas from NatGeo kicking around somewhere, battered from my endless searching. Nowadays I occasionally like to futz around with Google Maps. Y’know, because it’s cheaper than actually travel, an the satellite images fascinate me. Now granted as a kid, I couldn’t just hop on a plane to England to visit Elton’s hometown, but it gave me a sense of wonder to hear where my musical idols came from, hence the map thing. Next best thing to being there: artists bios and a place they called home. To put it simply: “The Beatles are cool. Where the heck is Liverpool?”
Paired with my twin interests in music and travel (if only in my mind), I later heard about places where certain kinds of music originated. Face it, America is a big place, populated with all sorts of creative weirdoes. Regardless of which coast you hail from, there’s gonna be a local music scene that’s uniquely, well, unique. Places like the rustic Mississippi Delta, good ol’ Memphis, Tennessee, New York’s downtrodden Lower East Side or the raked suburbs of Los Angeles. A good portion of most modern rock music can be traced back to such places. And from those places came legendary recording studios like Sun Records and Stax in Memphis, Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Abbey Road in London, or Hitsville USA in Detroit.
Not to mention Chess Records, the home of Chicago electric blues…
Leonard Chess (Brody) is a humble junk dealer, living the typical hardscrabble existence in the dumps of Southside. Needless to say, he’s broke and has very little prospects. Okay, none. What he really wants to do is open a nightclub for the musicians to play the “race music” he so enjoys, but first he’s gotta save his pennies for someday.
McKinley Morganfield—better known to his friends as Muddy Waters (Wright)—is a broke-ass sharecropper from the Mississippi Delta, living a thankless, backbreaking existence hoeing rows and earning nary a penny for his labors. What he’d rather be doing is strumming on his beater guitar, and maybe earn a living off of that someday, too. But first things first he’s gotta get off the farm.
Fast-forward a few years. Chess dumped the dump and got his bar; Waters got off the plantation, guitar in tow. The first settled down and dug in. The second got himself up Chicago way, playing his axe in street, hopeful to score a deal with his rip roaring slide guitar licks. After a fateful evening of improv at Chess’ bar where a weary Southern black guitar slinger meets a working class white Jewish barkeep…well let’s just say that from such humble beginnings, legacies are born.
Chess takes interest in Waters’ jamming and suggests they cut a record together. At first Waters is confused. What’s a curious peckerwood Jewish bartender know about music? Turns out a lot. Not long after Chess cuts a hit for Muddy, he starts to wrangle in other bluesy talents from around the Chicago circuit. There’s Little Walter, diminutive harp player and Waters’ aide-de-campe; Howlin’ Wolf, a burly blues singer from down Mississippi way; bluesman Willie Dixon who quickly becomes the house songwriter; upstart guitar slinger Chuck Berry who ushers in a new kind of music dubbed “rock and roll.” And lastly blues chanteuse Etta James, whose heartbreaking vocals could pull the tears from the stoniest of eyes. Yes indeed, the fledgling Chess Records roster quickly become synonymous with rhythm and blues.
Over the next few decades, Chess Records is peerless in it attraction and distribution of all kinds of “race music,” pioneering sounds and bringing to the masses the styles of Chicago electric blues, jump blues, early rock ‘n roll and whole slew of other styles that take the nation by storm. But all is not golden in Camelot. With great fame and fortune can come high peaks, yes, but also some crushing pitfalls. The life of a popular musician can swim in fortune and fame, but also foster loss, deception and the occasional tragedy. Not got for business, and nothing can last forever.
So the short, influential life of Leonard Chess and his recording studio was once the house of blues, molding the culture of Chicago’s music scene for decades to come, shared success and failure equally. Not all of it was wine, women and song. Well, most of it was. But for a time, the musical nexus of America was a dumpy recording studio in Chicago’s south side…
The frank plot outline above is in direct response to a Hollywood device I’ve always had trouble with: the ensemble biopic. Whereas a biopic with one central character, say the big screen story of Walk The Line, has a fulcrum to pivot on (i.e. Johnny Cash), a story involving a family like the Chess Records players tends to lack a tentpole for which the entire story can hang. To remedy this problem, the movie employs another device that I sometimes take issue with: a narrator.
Now don’t get me wrong, a lot of good movies have employed a narrator to great effect. Forrest Gump is a good example, and so was Fight Club (odd that these two movies were adaptations of novels, where narrators are indispensible. Hmm). In Cadillac Records, Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer, adopting a rather off-putting caricature of your stereotypical bluesman) serves as the voice and storyteller of Chess Records’ rise and fall. Here’s the issue: stories about places, and the ensemble of players within, seem to employ a narrator when the story is too varied and needs a focus. In other words, the story can’t stand by itself. Cedric does a serviceable job as Records’ spinner of tales, but ultimately wasn’t necessary.
There’s enough going on in and around Chess to scoop up your attention just by itself. Take the opening credits. Cinema verite of the sounds, sight and songs of the subject matter. The montage was very indie, which set my mind up for some expectations. Namely, the needful drive to set the film apart form Hollywood biopics ran fast and loose, which is an affliction of most indie films. Another trouble with biopics is you gotta embellish and exaggerate the story, since the reality is probably a lot more mundane. For instance, we can’t have many scenes where Chess is negotiating contracts with the potential talent (which must always be more involved than what Hollywood portrays, doubtless with lawyers stinking up the joint) or the unglamorous trials of touring via bus to points afar. You get what I mean; you gotta strip the story down to meat and bone and spice up the meat to make the story tastier.
From the opening credits we sure do get fast, loose and spicy. Scene upon scene serving as touchstones for the origins of Chess Records. Chess in the junkyard, Waters on the plantations. Chess in the bar, Waters on the Chicago streets. The struggles, successes and women (of which there is a lot) come in at rapid clip. It feels like this movie is in a hurry. And it is, trying to cram in as much info as possible to bookend the scenes that matter most: the musical ones. No real surprise there, but before I get too academic about it all (and I’ve noticed with these reviews my voice has been getting more uptight and stentorian with each passing week. Sorry about the lack of snark. I’m gonna try an fix that later on), I gotta get down with the film’s more accessible points beyond the technical crap.
Stuff like dialogue, which at the outset is none too promising. I’m not saying the writing is shoddy (which it kinda is), but how it’s delivered. Wright makes for an outstanding Muddy, but his delivery is rather unconvincing, not unlike the rest of the cast. He’s like your stereotypical journeyman blues guy, rough on the outside due to hard promises, golden on the inside for his gift for creating joy from his axe. Now Wright made for a damn fine Muddy Waters, all gritty and downbeat, but he had to work with what he was given, and he comes across rather one-note. A good note, but narrow all the same. As an aside, I’ve seen a couple of films here at RIORI that Wright starred in, and he is fast becoming a favorite character actor of mine. He’s very versatile in his work, and is more the less the lead of the picture, shouldering out Oscar winner Brody.
Brody as the titular music tycoon is sort of blah despite being the alleged center on which the whole story spins. Wright steals the show. As do most of the other players. Hot-headed Columbus Short as Little Walter is all fire and naïveté and plays the Flava Flav to Waters’ Chuck D. Another subtly impressive role was Eamon Walker’s portrayal of Howlin’ Wolf. Walker is an imposing charater, darker and deeper than Muddy. He was kind of scary too, not unlike the mountain of the actual man.
Here’s a treat: Mos Def as Chuck Berry. What a hoot. He’s the comic relief, all freewheeling and pop star without a whit of irony. Def has a nice Berry voice, not on point but you gotta give credit where it’s due. It’s kind of hard to screw up a role of a musician when you’re a musician yourself. But on the other hand there’s Beyonce at Etta James. The less about that the better. She’s a singer. She’s a singer playing a singer. She’s all melodrama and singled dimension. She’s got sass but should stick with singing, which for the most part she does belting out James’ signature tunes with aplomb.
Okay. There. We’ve covered the acting bases. The acting is scattershot overall, and not many of the characters (save Wright) are consistency convincing. Records is movie with an ensemble cast. The cast doesn’t play well with—off—each other. Moving on.
There’s a lot of Hollywood trappings in Records also, despite it being an indie film. For instance, the old tried and true schtick of crossing the race barrier. The film makes no bones about both Chess and Waters being on the outside, but of course between their synergy, both rise to fame and fortune. There are again stereotypical scenes addressing race relations and how music transcends all and blah blah blah. It’s a very tried trope. To trim up the film, maybe it should have been avoided altogether. I mean, c’mon. Hell, these are black blues singers working with a Jewish guy during the height of racial segregation in urban 1960s Chicago, on the air or otherwise. What the hell do you thinks gonna happen? The whole race card game is played, Hollywood. We get it. Stop reminding us. Or at least save it for one of Ken Burns’ epic PBS documentaries. Not all music stories need to be so drenched in tragedy. Not to downplay it (because without that tension, would the music have been so seminal?) but it’s stale.
What really sinks Records is too much melodrama and (you guessed it) slow pacing. Again with the pacing. There’s a lot to say about the history of Chess Records, and Cedric does his damndest to keep us apprised, but every scene is just slammed onto the screen as if the director is gonna run out of film. There’s a lot say, all right, but as an audience we don’t want to feel hurried. Watching the movie I had this recurring feeling that I had missed something. Out of breath is a bad way to watch a movie.
I love music. I want to love movies about music (not movie musicals, I generally think that sh*t’s corny). I wanted to love Cadillac Records. I didn’t. The music Chess put out hit close to my LP collection heart, but the tale of how those tunes were spun were hampered with Hollywood stereotypes and rushed production.
You know what? It takes dozens of takes to get a movie right. Sometimes with a song you can do it unjust one. Maybe I should just’ve stuck with the albums.
Rent it or relent it? Despite my enthusiasm for the subject, relent it. The film is too rushed, too staged and too fragile.
- Mos Def as Chuck Berry. Is it a bad thing that all my fave hip-hop artists become actors? They always quit rapping.
- “There’s your riff right there.” “Ain’t nothing to that.” Understatement of the career.
- That tear. “She’s gonna need milk.”
- Hot sauce. Yes. Some cultural touchstones really do transcend barriers.
- “Skinny motherf*cker…”
Aspiring writer Rob Brown is Finding Forrester to be a misanthrope, a crank and quite possibly the best teacher he’s ever had.