Typically, a movie based on a musician’s life follows a simple pattern: up, followed by down, rinse, repeat. Remember Ray (2004) or Walk the Line (2005), or even the very pointed parody Walk Hard (2007)? The stereotype is that great artists are born with a blessing and a curse; originality and creative daring come with impulsiveness and insatiability. The same traits that produce art are the ones that cause artists to wreck their families and fall into addiction. Musical biopics lurch from heights to depths with scant room for character, or even plot, development.
Cheers, then, to Darnell Martin, who didn’t follow this formula in writing and directing Cadillac Records. The film tells the story of Chess Records, the Chicago label that brought Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Etta James, and Chuck Berry to fame. Once called “race” performers and confined to southern radio stations, with time these artists’ music crossed the color barrier and eventually the Atlantic. In a late scene, Mick Jagger is unpacking outside Chess studios with his band, and is awed to realize he’s talking to Muddy Waters. Jagger tells Waters the Rolling Stones are named after one of his songs.
You can already see that this is a densely populated movie, and the above paragraph lists not half of the represented stars. But Martin conveys the story smoothly, introducing each character and getting him established before bringing the next on stage. They’re more three-dimensional than they might have been, too. The label’s co-founder, Leonard Chess, could have been set up as a bad-guy exploiter, but from the start we see that, as a Jewish immigrant from Poland (originally named Lejzor Czyz), he had his own obstacles to overcome. Adrien Brody plays Chess, and it’s an excellent performance, though in old photos the original Chess is somewhat less attenuated.
Toward the end of the film, a narrator points out that no black man could have done what Chess did at that time. But in addition to having the right skin color, Chess believed in these artists’ music and worked hard for its success. Was he paternalistic? Did he skim his artists’ royalties? The Chess we see isn’t a plaster saint, but he is a complex, believable character.
Muddy Waters (Jeffery Wright) gets as much screen time as Chess; the film is built around the two men. We meet Waters in 1941, harvesting a crop in Mississippi, when Alan Lomax pulls up and asks him to record a song. It’s a touching moment when Waters listens to the recording and asks, “Is that me? . . . I feel like I’m meeting myself for the first time.” He moves to Chicago and soon acquires a noble (and eventually long-suffering) wife, Geneva (Gabrielle Union), as well as a protégé called Little Walter (Columbus Short), a blazing harmonica player (harmonicist?) who’s both reckless and childlike, a touching combination. They start making records with Chess, who promotes them at stations throughout the South and is not averse to dropping some greenbacks on a DJ’s desk. More musicians accumulate, like the bassist and house songwriter, Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer), who narrates the film unobtrusively, only occasionally appearing onscreen.
Far more obtrusive — indeed, electrifying — is Eamonn Walker as Howlin’ Wolf. Before he appears, Waters seems the final word on the blues, with his deep voice and testosterone swagger. But Wolf is a physical presence. His voice is a subterranean rasp; suddenly, Waters could double for Alvin the Chipmunk. What’s more, Wolf’s got a sense of independence that Waters, always sponging off Chess, could use. Wolf gives Waters this advice: “It feels good not to have a daddy, and as much as I don’t like you, I want you to feel good like that too.”
Believe it or not, there are still two more characters — major characters — to introduce. If Howlin’ Wolf puts a bass line under Waters, Chuck Berry (Mos Def) adds brighter notes. He’s quick-spoken and clever, and shows up at Chess Records with a new kind of music that no one knows how to describe (we know now, of course, that he got it from Marty McFly). Berry and Chess are sitting across the desk from Alan Freed when Freed tells Berry, “If I play it, I make you famous, and him rich.” Berry says, “Wait a minute, what did you say? Me famous, and him rich?” He stands up and has Chess change chairs with him.
The last major character to shimmy onscreen is Etta James (Beyonce Knowles), the female singer that Chess had been seeking. Etta should have been a better character, though; her storyline follows that familiar outline of up and down, love and lose, pass out on the floor. She looks and sounds terrific, though — Knowles can really wring the heart out of a song like “I’d Rather Go Blind” — and Martin presents her songs almost in their entirety, whereas she only lets the audience see the guys perform funky but brief clips.
This movie isn’t for everyone. The dialogue includes more uses of the f-bomb than pretty much anything but The Big Lebowski. The audience gets numb to it after awhile, but nothing prepares viewers for a line of Etta’s that’s uglier than the usual fare.
Also, knowledgeable fans will be frustrated by the liberties the script takes with history. For example, Martin depicts a romance between two characters that can’t be substantiated. More seriously, Martin has eliminated an entire Chess. His name was Phil — Leonard’s brother and the co-founder of the label. It will be surreal to go to this movie as a fan of the label, familiar with its history, and keep waiting for Phil to appear.
Still, all told, Cadillac Records is a good, satisfying movie, a tale well told. Martin genuinely presents a whole lot of characters, develops them, layers them with care, and shows the audience how complex these personalities were.
– Frederica Mathewes-Green writes regularly for NPR’s Morning Edition, Beliefnet.com, Christianity Today, and other publications. She is the author of Gender: Men, Women, Sex and Feminism, among other books.