Chess Records maybe the house that Leonard Chess built but it was Etta James, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Chuck Berry and songwriter Willie Dixon who made it into a soulful home. The incredible music that came from that small studio is not only legendary but undeniably sacred. Academy Award winner Adrien Brody (The Pianist) plays Leonard Chess, an emigrate from Poland who settled in Chicago. After hearing the low down growl of the blues, he permanently left the junkyard business to enter the record business. First, he managed clubs featuring black artists and then began his own record company. He quickly discovered in the segregated South there was a need for this type of sound and quickly went to work. Call it the original crossover from urban to mainstream.
He took a chance with guitar legend Muddy Walters, (Jeffrey Wright, “Shaft”) who walked off the Alabama plantation he worked on and headed to Chicago, and harmonica master Little Walter (Columbus Short, “You Got Served”). Then came Etta James. The most beautiful and blunt native Angeleno, and the alleged daughter of pool hall great Minnesota Fats, whose voice can shake you up and settle you down. She drank gin as if it were soda and will rightly cuss out anyone who gets her ire up. Her unapologetic blonde hair and fiercely, heavy drawn eyebrows and shapely walk would make the blind see and the mute say “Come on over, baby girl!”
Once again, former Destiny Child’s lead singer, multiple Grammy winner and now rapper Jay-Z’s better half, plays a singer. She’s not the demure Deena from “Dreamgirls” or the sweet and endearing Lilly from “The Fighting Temptations”. They are so long gone. Enter what could be Beyoncé’s most spellbinding role as the insurmountable, Miss Etta. As the hard-drinking, vulgar talking, straight up Etta James, the singer/spokesmodel/actress puts her previous roles to shame. The moment she steps into Chess Records Studios she takes full control and everyone takes a long look and straightens up. The newly dubbed ‘Sasha Fierce’, is surrounded by an awesome cast, which includes rapper/actor Mos Def as Chuck Berry and Eamonn Walker (“Tears of the Sun”), who breaths life into this captivating and enjoyable movie.
Lady Jigga wasn’t the only one who stepped up her game and gave a memorable performance. Mos Def is Chuck Berry. He got the octogenarian’s mannerisms, southern wit, and guitar playing all pulled together to create the all around swagger. Walker did a most excellent job playing Chester “Howlin’ Wolf” Burnett. In real life, Howlin’ Wolf commanded attention with his little over six foot frame and almost 300 pound build and loud, bombastic voice. He was one of the few in the Chess family to keep his money by ignoring the evils—alcohol, gambling and women. Walker provided his character with humor and vulnerability making it easier to like Howlin’ and not be so intimidated.
Writer/director Martin (“I Like it Like That”, “Their Eyes Were Watching God”) wrote a hell of a great script. The title is a little misleading. The record label was called Chess Records after Leonard. However, the way the CEO spent money on getting top-of-the-line Cadillac every year for himself and some of his artists, “Cadillac Records” is more appropriate. Part music lesson, all around autobiographical, Martin brought out the vividness of the blues. She didn’t re-invent it but she did give it a brand new look for most of us who have heard of these fine icons but into really listened to their unique, amplified heart grabbing sound.
CR also provides an inside look at the ugly side of the music business. Payola, unfair royalties split, drug use and artists praying that his/her next song will be a hit so the mortgage can be paid. Muddy affectionately dubs Leonard as his “white daddy”. It’s big poppa who controls the finances.
For new fans, it’s something they never heard and will have a new respect for. For the veterans, it’s a wonderful and articulate reminder of the music they either grew up listening to or heard a track way back in the day and found a new friend. Either way, Cadillac Records makes it a pleasurable find.