Cadillac records is the Hollywood treatment of the story of the Chess record label. The film centers on the founder of Chess Records – Leonard Chess and the labels first star Muddy Waters. Although the film is not a complete disappointment, its your basic Hollywood over-simplification / over-dramatization of the true events. Granted the film is “based on a true story”, they omit and make up connections that weren’t there to enhance the dramatic effect and dumb it down for the audience. I had similar issues with the Johnny Cash /June Carter romance “Walk The Line”.
Here is a quick list of my disagreements with this movie:
- Very early on they portray Leonard Chess as being the underdog with a ridiculous exchange between him and some girls father. Additionally they play up his death as if it happened on the way out from his last session with Etta James. In reality he died a few months after he sold Chess Records.
- The relationship between Leonard and Etta James is completely fictitious. Many other relationships and conflicts in the movie are also embellished including the scene in which Little Walter hits on Geneva. Also Muddy’s conflict with Leonard about his pay (in truth he cheated Chuck Berry more in that he was using his earnings to pay Muddy during hard times) was played up quite a bit.
- The story completely omits Muddy’s trusty pianist/band leader Otis Spann and doesn’t lend any focus on his guitarist Jimmy Rogers. Also almost completely passed over save for one scene in which Etta James is introduced is Leonard’s brother Phil who was part owner of the label/studio. There was also no mention of the fact that Leonard & Phil got their start in the record business when they bought stake in Aristocrat Records where they recorded a lot of Muddy’s original hits.
- Even though I think Jeffrey Wright (Muddy Waters) is a very talented actor I did not feel him in this role and thought they could have casted someone more fitting.
In the interest of being fair & balanced here is a list of things I enjoyed or thought the film did well:
- Casting in the film overall is right on. The choices of Mos Def as Chuck Berry, Eamonn Walker as Howlin Wolf, and Columbus Short as Little Walter were perfect. I even found myself enjoying Beyonce as Etta James and I usually find her unbelievably blank.
- One relationship they hit right on was the tension between Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. I think in later years they chilled out but early on there was a rivalry between the two blues singers.
- The film does a wonderful job remaking the music with the actors doing the vocals for the most part. I thought Jeffrey Wright was a little weak, but the others did a great job. The song picks were also well done. Leonard’s son Marshall acted as the Executive Music Producer on the film.
- Included are quite a few important moments and characters for which the film does a passable job at blending them in. For example the introduction of Muddy Waters getting recorded by Alan Lomax & John Work which was true.
Overall not the worst movie, but what things the film does well are ruined by the film bending the truth to make it more interesting to common movie goers.