Program Notes: Cadillac Records (2008)

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Cadillac Records is a satisfying amble through a rich chapter of American pop culture.

From the late '40s through the early '60s, Chicago's Chess Records was a hotbed of no-nonsense blues. And as the home of Chuck Berry, it has a claim to being the birthplace of rock 'n' roll.

Darnell Martin (a veteran TV director here making his feature debut) approaches this story of the label and the personalities who made musical history there with equal parts nostalgia, humor, and awe.

It begins with the parallel lives of guitar-picking Mississippi sharecropper McKinley Morganfield (the ever-excellent Jeffrey Wright) and Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody), a music-loving Chicago Jew.

Film Screening:
Cadillac Records (2008)
Monday, Apr. 15 at 6:30 p.m.
Central Library

Morganfield went up north to play his guitar and rechristened himself Muddy Waters. Chess opened a club that catered to black patrons, and when it mysteriously burned down, he used the insurance money to launch the record label that would make them both famous.

(Actually there were two Chess siblings behind the label, but to streamline the story the filmmakers eliminated all mention of brother Phil.)

In addition to Berry (played by a scene-stealing Mos Def), a fantastic lineup of players gravitated to Chess: the harmonica-blowing, self-destructive Little Walter (Columbus Short), the gravel-voiced Howlin' Wolf (Eamonn Walker), and the songwriting genius Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer). A late addition to the stable was songstress Etta James (Beyoncé Knowles).

The film's title refers to Chess' practice of presenting his new artists with a big shiny Caddy – visually Cadillac Records is a riot of towering tail fins, toothy chrome grills, and candy-colored enamel.

The cast members do their own singing, and while only Knowles comes close to surpassing the original recordings, they're all perfectly competent.

Narratively, the film is all over the place: a bit of racism here, some drug abuse there, a whole lot of sexual shenanigans (Gabrielle Union plays Muddy Waters' long-suffering spouse) and, of course, countless great songs being performed in the recording studio or on stage.

Cadillac Records is coy on a couple of still-controversial issues.

It raises the possibility that Chess exploited his performers, getting rich while they often lived hand-to-mouth. Maybe he employed creative bookkeeping ... or perhaps he saved while they lavishly spent. The jury's out.

And while suggesting a love affair between the long-married Chess and Etta James, the film avoids making a definitive pronouncement on their relationship.

The film lacks a center, jumping from one bigger-than-life personality to the next. The big selling point is the music.

Chess electrified the blues, Chuck Berry electrified white audiences, and after seeing this film you're going to want to find a compilation of Chess hits, settle in with a longneck, and groove to some of the best American music ever made.

Other films in the series “Hollywood's Music”

Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:

Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:

 

Admission to these films is free.

The series complements the six-week program America’s Music: A Film History of Our Popular Music from Blues to Bluegrass to Broadway.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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