Hoochie Coochie Men

Hollywood's version of the Chess Records story combines the best and worst of the classic rock 'n' roll biopic

Dec 10, 2008 at 12:00 am

Time was that rock biopics weren't really that much different from those hokey '50s teen movies featuring Alan Freed (you know, the ones that always had the kids pitted against the rock-hating adults) or even earlier Hollywood non-rock music bios (you know, the kind that portrayed Al Jolson as a kind, sensitive guy or had the dapper Cary Grant playing the notoriously gay Cole Porter as quite a ladies' man). This trend lasted well into the '90s; Oliver Stone's The Doors, in retrospect, was god-awful and historically inaccurate, and one almost wished the cavalry from another movie would suddenly show up to take care of that darn Indian during repeated viewings. Even The Buddy Holly Story, which seemed pretty great at the time as the first of its kind, hasn't held up well at all. That movie doesn't even portray the real members of the Crickets, although perhaps it's been certain career moves by Gary Busey, such as his comically psychotic turn on this season's Celebrity Rehab, that now make him seem much less believable as that early great rock star. Only American Hot Wax, which told a rather whitewashed version of the Alan Freed story, still remains entertaining to this day because — even though it's a factual mess — it still manages to capture the essence of what the music meant to a generation and most of the portrayals in the flick are brilliant.

More recent fare like Ray and Walk the Line obviously raised the bar a bit for the pop music bioflick. Interestingly enough, Cadillac Records — the story of Chicago's legendary Chess Records label, which gave rise to such monumental musical figures as Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Chuck Berry and Etta James, among numerous others, in the 1950s and '60s — combines elements of those early rock films with some of the more stellar qualities that came along when the bar was raised. In other words, some of it is total hogwash from a historical standpoint — but it still manages to capture the essence of the story it's trying to relate. And with only two or three exceptions, the casting and the acting are uniformly wonderful.

Cadillac Records is the second film about the Chess legacy to be released this year, although Jerry Zaks' Who Do You Love has yet to receive wide distribution. That latter film is said to concentrate more on label founder Leonard Chess and the complications and contradictions in his personality. Cadillac Records, however, concentrates on all the aforementioned Chess principals, with an emphasis on Chess and Muddy Waters — any one of whom could be the subject of their own biographical film. And thus writer-director Darnell Martin's story gets a tad convoluted and spread much too thin at times.

Adrien Brody portrays Leonard Chess, a Polish immigrant junkyard owner who opens Chi-town's Macomba Lounge in 1949 and begins presenting local blues artists (although, historically speaking, the club was originally a jazz hang; both Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington played its stage early on). At the same time, Muddy Waters (played by a terrific Jeffrey Wright), after having been recorded by folk music archivist Alan Lomax (Tony Bentley), leaves his sharecropping life in Mississippi to seek something better in the Windy City. Upon arriving, he hooks up with street harmonica prodigy Little Walter Jacobs, played to perfection by a baby-faced, gold-toothed Columbus Short as a charismatic, short-tempered original gangsta, something like the Tupac Shakur of his time. In short order, the two men meet up with Chess at his club and, before long, Waters becomes the first recording star — at least in the then-fledgling "race" music market — for the new Chess label. The movie — as narrated by Cedric the Entertainer playing Chess songwriter, bassist and producer Willie Dixon — then tries to tell the entire Chess story in the remaining 90 minutes, which, among other things, probably explains the absence of such pivotal Chess figures as Bo Diddley if not the dramatic license it often takes with facts.

But Wright definitely gets it right as Waters, reflecting the man's nobility and quiet dignity, despite his character flaws, throughout the film. Even when he's frequently seen in the doo-rag Waters wore off stage to protect his magnificent pompadour, Wright still looks like a blues king. Rapper Mos Def is extremely effective as Chuck Berry (not an easy task, as Berry is so immediately recognizable to ... well, almost everyone), although probably more likable than the real father of rock 'n' roll actually was. Believe it or not, Cedric the Entertainer is too "thin" to be a believable Dixon (the real Willie weighed in at more than 300 pounds), though his role in the film isn't big enough for that to matter much. The real scene-stealer, however, is a superb Eamonn Walker as Waters' major rival, Howlin' Wolf. In fact, the howlin', growlin' Walker is so good — a salacious version of "Smokestack Lightnin'" is one of the film's most memorable highlights — that, much like Heath Ledger as the Joker in last summer's The Dark Knight, one keeps hoping he'll appear more than he actually does in the movie.

Brody, meanwhile, is merely serviceable as Leonard Chess, and he looks absolutely nothing like the real man, who didn't really dress like a cool '50s greaser and, unlike Brody in the film, actually aged just as the people surrounding him also aged. Brody is always likable as a man who's not above proudly paying radio DJs to get his records on the air and even burning down his own club for insurance money to launch his new label — yet the actor never really gets into Chess' psyche or what it was that actually drove this man. And Beyoncé Knowles, while less wooden than she was in her Dreamgirls performance, is also merely adequate as James, never totally capturing the real singer's feistiness and, in James' own words, her "meanness." But as the film's executive producer, Knowles is the only one to get two entire musical performances on screen, including the classic "At Last," which is fine but it's not Etta James. (Queen Latifah woulda made more sense; I'm just sayin' ...) Probably the most miscast cameo, though, is Eric Bogosian as Alan Freed; Bogosian also looks and sounds nothing like the man he's portraying.

We see Freed-Bogosian announcing that the Rolling Stones are the "hottest thing" around in 1964 (after the film portrays a so-so version of the group recording at Chess Studios) ... when any rock historian knows that Alan Freed was off the air by 1964, his career totally ruined in the 1959 payola scandal. And there is a lot more here that rock and blues historians aren't going to like. The biggest sin is the omission of Leonard's brother, Phil Chess, who co-founded and co-managed the label! Etta James and Leonard Chess never had a romantic or sexual relationship, as the film suggests (although James did have an affair with the married Harvey Fugua of the Moonglows, yet another Chess artifact never mentioned in the film). Hell, Little Walter didn't actually die in Muddy Waters' home ... though the scene depicting that happening does give Wright as Waters the opportunity to go upstairs, close a door, and then howl in grief like a banshee.

And, again, it's the performances here that make Cadillac Records entertaining despite its many flaws. In regards to the latter, though, seeing Little Walter being prepared for his funeral as a '56 Elvis is on a nearby TV screen singing a cover of Walter's "My Babe," which Presley didn't record until 1969 in Vegas, a year after Walter's death, is extremely troublesome (as is the film's insistence that Berry, indeed one of the founders of rock, was the single-handed catalyst behind rock's great crossover appeal, when the fact is Elvis had started recording his Sun sides a full year before Berry recorded "Maybelline" at Chess). The film ends with Waters going to England in '69 as some sort of grand triumph ... when history knows that the great bluesman was going to Europe as early as the late '50s!

I could go on, but, like so many movies before it, one simply has to suspend disbelief at the door of the theater, especially if one happens to be a music historian. And writer-director Martin — the first African-American woman to be given auteur status by the Hollywood studios — does occasionally add a nice historical touch to try to balance things out, even if it is something as simple as the appearance of Howlin' Wolf's great guitarist Hubert Sumlin (played by Albert Jones) or documenting James' long-held belief that billiards legend Minnesota Fats was her biological father. And, again, ultimately, in the end, it's the fine performances throughout Cadillac Records that might make even the staunchest of rock history aficionados among us think, in the grand words of Chuck Berry himself, c'est la vie, especially if the film succeeds in introducing this great music to new and future generations.

Bill Holdship is the music editor of Metro Times Send comments to [email protected].