This story is told from the point of view of Willie Dixon (Cedric The Entertainer), the bass player who also composed some of Waters’ famous songs like “Hoochie Coochie Man.” Muddy Waters came right from a sharecropper’s farm in the Mississippi Delta, where he developed his signature slide guitar style. After migrating to Chicago, he discovers Little Walter (Columbus Short), the enormously talented harmonica player, and together they were fabulously successful on the “Chitlin’ Circuit,” the black blues nightclubs scattered throughout the Deep South.
After Chess signed them, and began personally promoting them to the radio stations, the record sales made them all rich and famous, and we revel, as well, in the new Cadillacs, the heady publicity, and the beginning of an incredible era. Howlin’Wolf (Eamonn Walker) soon followed, with his own unique personality and vocals, but the sea change came with Chuck Berry (Mos Def). He was the first “crossover” into mainstream music, and then came Etta James (Beyonce Knowles), with vocals so powerful that they could tone down the instruments, even utilizing flute and violin.
Leonard Chess is portrayed here as part owner, part caretaker, part advocate, part shyster. There are insinuations of sloppy accounting. Because it’s about the music, and the passion of the musicians, there’s also a significant underplay of personal biography, such as Chuck Berry’s three prison terms, and a bare acknowledgment of the drug and alcohol abuse surrounding many of these performers, and their entourage. Racial tension, however, is always bubbling just below the surface, sometimes boiling over into ugly confrontation.
Then there’s the issue of musical piracy. Chuck Berry hears the Beach Boy’s “Surfin’ U.S.A.”, and is convinced that the music was lifted directly from his “Sweet Little Sixteen,” and he eventually won the lawsuit that proved his point. Though pop music moved in a different direction, with Elvis, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones, still, the pioneers enjoyed continued adulation from a new generation, as their songs became “covers” for new groups; almost the obligatory elementary education in Rock ‘n Roll.
At the end of “Cadillac Records,” during the credits, several subsequent lawsuits for stolen tunes are chronicled, as if the pioneers were always fighting to get the credit they deserved. But they’re all now enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, even the more obscure, like the harmonica player, Little Walter. Their contributions are now universally acknowledged, and here, dynamically performed on the big screen. But the one unforgettable moment is Beyonce’s rendition of “At Last” live, in studio; that alone is worth the price of admission.
“Cadillac Records” is not just a waltz down memory lane; it’s a primer in American musicology, with a backbeat you can’t lose.
Questions for Discussion:
1) Who “invented” Rock ‘n Roll? If not a particular artist, what combination of early blues/country/hillbilly/folk performers?
2) What musicians are underappreciated for their contributions to the genre?
3) What performers enjoyed popular success, but didn’t break any new ground?
4) Who’s your favorite Rock ‘n Roll pioneer?
RONALD P. SALFEN is pastor of Grace Church in Greenville, Texas.