I’m a big Muddy Waters fan, but having only ever seen him on tv or movies and read about him in books, I was really thrilled to see Jeffrey Wright make come to life in Cadillac Records. The hard part is recreating the charisma of the man, and Wright succeeded. There were many nuances in the script and it captured a complex scene including segregation, drug addiction, migration north of southern blacks, electrification of the music, creation of the national and international music business and finally the sale that landed Chess in the hands of proto rap mogul Sylvia Robinson and MCA (where I promoted the reissues).
“If you could sing and play guitar, you were Superman” according to Willie Dixon‘s (Cedric the Entertainer) narration in the film, and that was Muddy. He is shown having a universal effect and it is very believable. Ferocious as his singing and guitar playing was, Muddy had a quiet dignity of character and constant elegance to his attire. He was consistently described this way in books like Mojo Man by Sandra Tooze, Bossmen (about Muddy and Bill Monroe!) and Deep Blues (Robert Palmer’s history of the music, which, like a fractal, is Muddy’s own story multiplied larger) and Robert Gordon’s excellent book Can’t Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters is probably the most recent of these. You can’t go wrong, it’s Muddy and he’s one of the best ever.
Leonard Chess is central to the story and Adrian Brody is good throughout but unconvincing coaching/lovemaking to Etta James. The movie also skims over the horrible financial terms Muddy Waters was treated to as a Chess artist, but shows him all but begging Leonard Chess for money. Gabrielle Union was impressive as Muddy’s loyal wife Geneva, who commanded the home in South Chicago. The early scenes of Muddy and Little Walter doing shows and Muddy becoming famous are wonderful.
While the film did not go all the way in terms of authenticity to the facts and may have fallen short in its moral/ethical scope, it was a very entertaining film to see. I liked Union, who portrayed Muddy’s supportive wife Geneva with grace, and there were many scenes with plenty of accuracy for me (especially the White Sox‘ cameo), based on my book knowledge of Muddy.
A recurring theme in every movie or tv show of a recording session we have ever seen, from Ray to the Brady Bunch’s recording session, is when the producer either overrides a technical concern of a “traditionalist” engineer type for an new approach with excellent results. Or they make a small suggestion like “change the tempo” or “embody the character in the song.” Sort of hard to avoid but seems to be a recurring scene in music movies. In Cadillac Records, the incredible music and the authenticity of the artists more than makes up for the cliche of Brody stifling a complaining engineer.
All hail the great Muddy Waters and see Cadillac Records if you have a chance to. In the interest of disclosure, I must admit that I work for Music World and Buddy Guy, who are connected to this movie in business, creative and familial ways.
Cadillac Records is one of the best music movies I’ve seen in a while and I recommend it strongly.