“Leonard Chess didn’t know nothing about no blues” – Muddy Waters
Cue the cheesy Sherwood Schwartz music. It’s the story of a man named Lenny, who was busy with an idea of his own. He had this wild, crazy notion that he, a White, Polish immigrant living in Chicago could start a record label (actually, he bought an existing label) on the South Side of town, go out and find Black artists and record them making what were referred to in that era as “race records” and make money while doing it.
Leonard Chess was a pioneer in that way, along with his brother who we see very little of in Cadillac Records. Portrayed by Oscar-winner Adrien Brody, Chess is a tough record producer who does whatever it takes to get the recording in the can and on the air, including paying off disc jockeys. The whole payola system was in full effect in the heyday of Chess Records and they used it to get airtime for their artists. The reason the movie was titled Cadillac Records by its writer/director Darnell Martin was Lenny Chess’s reputation for buying his star recording acts a new Caddy whenever they had a big hit record. The problem, which comes up in the film’s later stage is that Lenny’s largess was done with what should have been the artist’s share of the royalties from those hits.
The historic importance of Chess Records and its founder in terms of the creation of what we know today as “rock and roll” cannot be overstated. Among the fine cast that Martin has put together for her film is Jeffrey Wright, whose portrayal of the legendary Muddy Waters is simply brilliant. He continues to impress with his ability to portray a wide variety of characters. Also giving excellent performances in Cadillac Records are Eammon Walker as the big man, “Howling Wolf”, Columbus Short as the charismatic but troubled Little Walter and Gabrielle Union as Geneva Wade, the woman that Muddy Waters always came home to, no matter where he’d been or what he might have done.
One of the things that detracts from the success of Cadillac Records and keeps it from a “four popcorn” rating is that director Martin insisted on her stars singing their own music in the film. This was a major mistake, probably brought on by the successful singing of Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon in Walk the Line and Jamie Foxx in Ray. Those films were examples of where current actors singing the music of the musicians they are portraying worked well. This is an example of where it doesn’t. Beyonce may be a talented woman, with a fine musical career but her vocalizations don’t hold a candle to the original works of Etta James. Likewise with Jeffrey Wright. He is a great actor, but his musical efforts are a pale shadow of what the real Muddy Waters produced.
Other than the choice to have the actors do their own singing, and the fact that Mos Def’s duckwalk just doesn’t quite get the job done in comparison to that of the real Chuck Berry, Cadillac Records tells the story quite well. Particularly in the third act, where the financial chicanery of Lenny Chess finally start to come to light and you’ll find yourself snapping your fingers to the beat as the music plays on.