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The Great Music Heist

8 December 2008

"I don't bribe deejays!", fumes the character of an experienced producer. "But I do", replies the up-and-coming record label owner, Leonard Chess.

The common nominator, if a vague one, in
Darnell Martin's film "Cadillac Records" is the contradiction between music and the money surrounding it. The two are symbolized in the film by Mr Chess (Adrien Brody) and his label's superstar artist Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright).

"Cadillac Records" tells the story of the legendary blues label, Chess Records. A Mississippian sharecropper meets a Polish junkman-turned-club owner in Chicago. They share a passion for the blues. Chicago Blues sees daylight as soon as Muddy Waters plugs in and Mr Chess rolls the tape in his fine studio; a facility financed by the insurance money he received from the (self-assisted) burning-down of his club.

The story itself is hardly surprising. Muddy's "I Can't Be Satisfied" turns out a big hit; the success is followed by the introduction of, among others,
Little Walter, Chuck Berry, Howlin' Wolf and especially Etta James (Beyonce Knowles). The back catalog of Chess Records is to meet its match, but the central songs seem to be "At Last" and "I'd Rather Go Blind" sung by Beyonce. No wonder: Knowles is the film's Executive Producer.
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Chuck Berry's prison sentence and James's substance abuse provide the story with a bit of drama. However, the story is shallow; the closing scenes are touching as such, but there is no reason to be moved after all - the majority of characters are too superficial to be cared about.

There Is a Message, After All

Columbus Short's Little Walter, a somewhat sad nutcase, gathers the sympathy. Other excellent actors include a fun Mos Def (Chuck Berry), familiar figure from the prison series "Oz" Eamonn Holmes (Howlin' Wolf) and the ever-colourful Cedric The Entertainer (Willie Dixon). Cedric has been given the completely useless role as the narrator, however. Beyonce sings nicely and her acting is adequate as well. Jeffrey Wright has often been seen in supporting roles. His guy-next-door in "Broken Flowers" (2005) was hilarious, but he does not have what it takes to become Muddy Waters, a legend with immeasurable charisma. Adrien Brody, an Oscar winner, has obviously considered "Cadillac Records" a side project.

A scene near the end of the movie sees Little Walter (who died of injuries picked up in yet another fight) being prepared for an open casket. This becomes the key. A TV set in the background is on, showing a white artist from Tupelo, Mississippi singing "My Babe". This is obviously to say the white folks stole the music of the blacks; the argument is supported by the end credits, which remind the movie-goer of the successful lawsuits Chuck Berry (vs The Beach Boys) and Willie Dixon (Led Zeppelin) had against white artists.

On the other hand, "Cadillac Records" suggests that the European whites gave a new life to the blues. As for Muddy, the story ends with a royal welcome in England.

There is a lot of energy and potential that never actualizes. There would have been much more in the power struggle between Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. The thrill between Little Walter and Muddy's wife
Geneva as well as the one between Leonard Chess and Etta James are mere sidesteps.  It would also have been great to see more of those delicious scenes from Muddy's Mississippi days and his early times in Chicago.

The movie's unquestionable merits include the authentic fifties atmosphere created by director Darnell Martin as well as the successful supporting roles. In addition to Beyonce, Wright, Short and Mos Def sing themselves.

The purpose of "Cadillac Records", presumably, is to pay respect to the traditions of American folk music. The film is contradictory however: is it really a tribute, or merely a way to lure paying customers to movie theatres, to munch popcorn? Judging by its visibility on the silver screen, a certain classic auto maker has surely covered a hefty share of the film's budget.


Premiere: Cadillac Records. Parkwood Pictures/Sony Music Film, 2008

Directed and written by Darnell Martin
Director of Photography Anastas Michos
Edited by Peter C. Frank
Music Producer Steve Jordan

Starring e.g. Adrien Brody (Leonard Chess), Jeffrey Wright (Muddy Waters), Beyonce Knowles (Etta James), Mos Def (Chuck Berry), Columbus Short (Little Walter), Eamonn Walker (Howlin' Wolf), Gabrielle Union (Geneva Wade), Cedric The Entertainer (Willie Dixon), Emmanuelle Chriqui (Revetta Chess)

Duration 1 h 49 min

Cadillac Records, Muddy Waters in London 1968

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