For a movie destined for DVD bin sales and basic cable rotation, Cadillac Record boasts an impressive cast. Adrian Brody, Mos Def, Beyonce, Cedric the Entertainer, et al.. join to tell the story of Chess Records, a Chicago label that played a crucial link between rock and blues in the fifties and sixties.
The basic arc of the narrative is common to the rock bio-pic subgenre. There’s an iconoclast who mortgages his staid placid life to commune with an outsider music he loves. That would be Leonard Chess who’s so moved by the rootsy blues of Muddy Waters that he sets up a label to distribute it. A businessman himself, Chess doesn’t rely on the quality of the music to get radio airtime. He bribes disk jockeys while growing a stable of groundbreaking artists of complicated personalities. They would include the alcoholic, mercurial Little Walter; the songwriter Willie Dixon; the self made legend Howlin Wolf; the dynamic huckster genius Chuck Berry; and the destructive chanteuse Etta James who’s perpetual downward spiral seduces the charts and Chess himself.
Cadillac Records eventually tries to shoehorn the story of Chess’s fall into one of victimhood to white rock, but Chess’s actual decline was much more interesting. Firstly a little label out of Detroit quickly asserted itself as a major player in the early sixties. Motown could claim to be a fully black operation, where the artists, songwriters, producers, and owners were all black. Contrast that to Chess which was run and managed by whites.
Motown emerged with a dynamic sound, endlessly inventive even when churned out at a fantastic clip. Chess tried to fight their rival head on, recruiting artists to make records in the Motown sound. While they were able to produce a few hits in this fashion (for instance Fontella Bass’s Rescue Me), the momentum had clearly shifted.
Secondly, while white artists poached from Chess acts, they quickly outgrew their influences. While the Beach Boys may have stole from Chuck Berry early on, by Pet Sounds any argument is pretty baseless.
Cadillac Records addresses neither point and instead fudges with dates such that emergence of Elvis and the Rolling Stones are presented as contemporaneous rather than separated by nearly a decade.
Chess’ attempts to co-opt the newer sounds by rock artists led to a hugely divisive period unfortunately not addressed in Cadillac Records. It saw acts like Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf backed by psychedelic instrumentation. While these albums sold very well initially, they were quickly savaged by critics of the day who demanded purity in the blues by Chess artists. The critics even included the artists themselves. One such album was aptly titled: “This is Howlin’ Wolf’s new album. He doesn’t like it. He didn’t like his electric guitar at first either.”
All this is to say that Chess’s true story was far more complicated than the overly pat narrative of Cadillac Records, even when constrained to Leonard Chess’s tragically short life. The great tragedy of this picture then is that a better account of Chess Records and its struggles and successes is still needed, but a better cast may not be available.