It's Summer 1941 in Chicago and a snotty 24-year old immigrant from Poland called Leonard Chess (a fantastic turn by Adrian Brody) is working in a junk yard promising his white girlfriend she’ll one day be riding around in a Cadillac once he gets his new business up and running. Leonard is going to open up a bar and club for Negro Artists to play and drink in – it will be called the Macomba Lounge. Her white father just sneers at this dreamer and his big ideas…
Meanwhile down South in Stovall, Mississippi a car drives up to a shack and two men exit – one of them is the legendary Folk Music collector for the Library of Congress Alan Lomax. The black man they’ve come to see is Morgan McKinleyfield – MUDDY WATERS (a stunning outing for Geoffrey Wright). Right there at his plywood home they record him – and for the first time Muddy Waters hears his own voice and unique slide technique. It’s all the mighty man needs – he packs his guitar case and meagre belongings and heads for the metropolis where a Blues Man can get noticed…
Quite apart from the obvious brilliance and groundbreaking nature of the music – there are three things that make "Cadillac Records" rock as a film.
First up is the extraordinary casting; not only is each character spot on - in some cases they actually seem to physically be the original singers. Geoffrey Wright gets the lion’s share as the mercurial and stunning Muddy Waters whose Blues made women go weak at the knees and men worship at his coiffeur (and gave the label the star and start it needed). There’s Cedric The Entertainer as the big burly double-bass playing genius songwriter WILLIE DIXON - who some would say was the true Hero of Chess Records ("My Babe", "I'm Your Hoochie Coochie Man", "Bring It On Home", "Help Me", "Little Red Rooster", "Wang Dang Doodle" and more – he wrote them all). There’s Mos Def as the lyrically-brilliant hit-writing CHUCK BERRY who dragged the label out of the declining Blues scene into the exploding Rock 'n' Roll era (despite his miserly ways and penchant for the younger ladies). And straight off the street at 17 years of age is the wildly volatile Columbus Short as the electrifying harmonica prodigy LITTLE WALTER (rated by many as the best harp player who ever lived). But it's England's Eamonn Walker as HOWLIN' WOLF and America's Beyoncé Knowles as ETTA JAMES that send the whole proceedings into the stratosphere. They bring both of these huge forces of nature to electrifying musical life right in front of you (Etta also gave Chess a lead into the burgeoning Sixties Soul market). Lesser-known names (but just as important) like Jimmie Rogers, Hubert Sumlin and James Cotton are all represented too.
The second aspect to the movie’s success is the music: using sympathetic Blues men like Chris Thomas King to remake the well-known classics – it gives their creation in the studio a stunning sense of new excitement. You feel those slide licks and harmonica warbles and power vocals - you feel the crowd and the band in those sweaty clubs heaving with the sound of freedom and sex.
And although it’s not historically accurate when it comes to the actual story of the label and its founder – the third winner is that Writer/Director Darnell Martin doesn’t shirk the darker side. We get graphic depictions of Muddy’s home-wrecking womanizing and spendthrift ways, Little Walter’s gun-totting murderous madness and descent into alcoholism, Etta’s stunning voice but volatile nature and eventual terrible drug habit - and even Leonard’s liberal attitude towards payola (Chuck Berry’s song-writing credits and therefore royalties were split and given to others like DJ Alan Freed).
The BLU RAY picture is lovely throughout and when the pink, blue and red Cadillacs are on screen – all shining chrome and garish paintjobs – they look good enough to lick. The Aspect Ratio is 2.35:1 so there are bars on the top and bottom of the screen – but even stretched to Full Aspect – it looks great.
Audio is English TRUEHD 5.1, Russian (VO) and Spanish. Subtitles include Arabic, Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, English For The Hard Of Hearing, Finnish, French, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Icelandic, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Slovak, Slovene, Spanish, Swedish and Turkish.
Extras include a Full Commentary by Writer/Director Darnell Martin, Deleted Scenes, Playing Chess: The Making Of Cadillac Records, Once Upon A Blues: Cadillac Records By Design
I wholeheartedly admit that "Cadillac Records" is the kind of film that makes me cry and long for those musical giants. I’ve been collected the label’s musical legacy for over 45 years now and have reviewed large numbers of ‘Chess” compilations online.
"I'm Your Hoochie Coochie Man" was first released as a 7” single in America on Chess 1560 in 1954. It featuring Muddy Waters punching out braggart lyrics like "I got a Mojo too…I'm gonna mess with you…"
And I for one am so glad he did.
Yeah Baby Yeah!