erik lundegaard

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Cadillac Records (2008)

Has any film fudged rock n’ roll history as much as this one? How bad of a storyteller are you when, in the long history of white artists stealing from black artists, you gotta make shit up?

It’s not even subtle shit. More than halfway through “Cadillac Records” — which is mostly about the relationship between Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright) and Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody) at Chess Records, with detours towards Little Walter (Columbus Short) and Etta James (Beyonce Knowles) — more than halfway through this thing, rising star Chuck Berry (Mos Def), who is basically credited with inventing rock n’ roll here, is angry that the Beach Boys’ 1963 song “Surfin’ USA” is ripping off his “Sweet Little Sixteen.

Flags immediately went up. “What happened to the rest of the ’50s?” I asked Patricia.

At that moment, onscreen, Berry gets busted for transporting a minor across state lines for purposes of prostitution, and, as he’s being led away, he complains that a white artist like Jerry Lee Lewis can get away with anything — even marrying his 13-year-old cousin.

“Jesus, what year is this supposed to be?” I said to Patricia. “That happened in the ’50s. And Jerry Lee Lewis didn’t get away with shit. Marrying his cousin ended his career, didn’t it?”

Five years later, we see Berry getting out of prison. Which is when he sees Elvis Presley on TV, singing to girls and being declared king of rock n’ roll.

“Oh, please,” I said to Patricia, who, by this time, was getting sick of my yakking. “Are they implying that Elvis became popular while Berry was in prison? That he became king then? I mean, what the hell?”

Some perspective. Berry and Presley were basically contemporaries. Presley’s “That’s All Right (Mama)” was on the air in the south in the summer of ’54, while Berry didn’t go to Chess Records to record “Maybellene” (and “invent rock n’ roll”) until May 1955. Meanwhile, tons of other artists, from Ray Charles to Bill Haley & His Comets, were doing their thing. Forces were at work, and they’d been at work for a long time; and if you wanted to call this thing “new,” and if you wanted to call it “rock n’ roll,” great, but don’t pretend one man invented it.

More perspective. Berry got busted under the Mann Act in 1959. So why show this after the Beach Boys’ 1963 recording? Why couldn’t the filmmakers have Berry getting busted and then, upon release, hearing the Beach Boys ripping him off? That’s works just as well with the movie’s themes— black artist ripped off by white — and has the added advantage of being true.

It’s a sad movie. It takes a meaty subject — all the talent that congregated at Chess Records in the ‘50s and ‘60s — and makes weak broth out of it. Lord knows I love Jeffrey Wright but I wonder if he’s the right actor for Muddy Waters. There’s something minimalist in Wright’s approach. There’s something in him that refrains from the spotlight. He gets eaten alive in the battle with Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker). He disappears as the movie progresses. Maybe that’s the point. Or maybe the film doesn’t do justice to Wright’s minimalist style.

But at least when it works, thanks to Wright, it really works. The same can't be said for the rest of the film. I don't get a sense of Leonard Chess: What makes him tick, what keeps him alive. Whether he was ripping off artists or aiding them. Or in what ways he was ripping off artists and in what ways he was aiding them. The portrait's nothing but smeary — as if both enemies and loved ones were involved in the creation of it.

Worse, once the movie starts fudging its history, you don't know what to believe. Chess hires Etta James as a prostitute, then hears her singing in the bathroom? Chess dies of a heart attack two blocks from Chess Records after selling it in 1969?

Admittedly it’s a tough story to tell. So many lives, so many larger-than-life characters, all in one spot. So couldn’t the focus have been the messiness of those lives creating works of near-perfection? That tension? Told without the bullshit and easy answers and finger-pointing? Hell, why not just focus on the heyday? Chicago: 1950-54. Make drama out of that. End with the arrival of Chuck Berry and something “new.”

Wouldn’t that be enough?

—March 20, 2009

© 2009 Erik Lundegaard