Showing posts with label Leonard Chess. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Leonard Chess. Show all posts

Monday, July 27, 2009

Chess Game

Cadillac Records (2008) probably should have been a TV mini-series, which would have allowed the filmmakers to sort out what is now essentially a jumbled mess. There is a great film in here somewhere, but not in the form it currently exists (why no extended “director’s cut” of a film that desperately needs it?). Although titled Cadillac Records, the film is, more accurately, about the rise of Chicago-based Chess Records and its founder, Leonard Chess (Adrian Brody), who founded the blues label in the early 1950s along with his brother Phil (what happened to his character in the movie?). (The title is inspired by Chess’s habit of paying his artists with Cadillacs.) The film also features Chess Records’ first major recording artist, Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), as well as other artists who began or established their careers at Chess, including Little Walter (Columbus Short), Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker), Chuck Berry (Mos Def), and Etta James (Beyonce Knowles). The ensemble cast gives fine performances (Beyonce gives a notable performance as Etta James), but we get only brief glimpses into their individual lives, and, astonishingly, by the film’s end it remains unclear why Chess Records should be the subject of a film in the first place. Apparently biopics of the individual artists represented are not a viable option.

Of course, the soundtrack has good music, but then again, it should. But outside of some Number One hits on the R&B charts and the occasional cross-over hit, though, we learn very little about these artists’ contributions to American music or about the importance of the individual albums released on the Chess label in the late Fifties and early Sixties. Nor do we learn much about so-called “Chicago Blues” or “electrified blues,” and why the sound was, and has been, found so compelling by so many blues enthusiasts. At one point, the Rolling Stones show up and give proper obeisance to their idol, Muddy Waters, although historically one of the songs they recorded while at Chess in 1964 was the Willie Dixon-penned “The Red Rooster” (issued by the Stones as “Little Red Rooster”), first recorded by Waters’ rival, Howlin’ Wolf, on his famous and highly influential second album, Howlin’ Wolf (1962), often referred to as “The Rockin’ Chair Album.” Howlin’ Wolf’s album includes many songs that helped shape rock ‘n’ roll in the Sixties and after. In addition to “The Red Rooster,” it includes “Wang Dang Doodle” (recorded by Savoy Brown, The Grateful Dead, Charlie Watts, and others), “Spoonful” (Cream, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Ten Years After, and others), and “Back Door Man” (The Doors; others). It’s very easy for me to say what the movie “should have done,” of course, but I would have liked to see the movie explore the motives for amplification in greater detail (touched on in the opening moments, and in the early key sequences featuring Little Walter), and why Leonard Chess pushed the music in that direction. (He was obviously aware of what Sam Phillips was doing in Memphis; it was Sam Phillips who recommended Howlin’ Wolf to Leonard Chess.) The film’s contention that the (white) music industry exploited black people is a valid point—of course. While the fact is undeniably true, the film nonetheless works a rather tired idea, namely the antithesis between “authentic” music (the outpouring of real feeling, authenticity as understood as the proximity to the blues) and “commercial” music (rock ‘n’ roll in this case). The fact is,“authentic” African-American music was an effect of industrialization (by which I mean it was supported and marketed by institutions such as radio, authorized by music publishing and licensing, and affected by developments in recording technology). Chicago blues helped shape the direction of rock ‘n’ roll, to be sure, but the idea that rock ‘n’ roll is the “commercial” imitation of some Real Thing (commercialization as corruption) is simply a myth, the result of a confusion, as Simon Frith has pointed out, “that music is the starting point of the industrial process—the raw material over which everyone fights—when it is, in fact, the final product.”

I was slightly perturbed by the way the film distorts history (and does so on several occasions), but perhaps the most egregious is the way it suggests, falsely, that Elvis had a hit from Little Walter’s “My Babe” early in his career. Most any detailed Elvis discography will show that Elvis didn’t record “My Babe” until August 1969, during one of his Las Vegas shows, by which time Little Walter had been dead for almost a year and a half (Little Walter died in February 1968), and—who knows—perhaps Elvis performed the song as an homage (it was not a song he performed often, suggesting this may be possible). The film also portrays Little Walter’s death as occurring before Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon travel to England in 1967 rather than after, and also suggests that Muddy Waters was slightly surprised by the reception of blues music in England in 1967, but in fact he’d toured there previously in 1958. Beyonce Knowles’ performance as Etta James is quite good; it’s unfortunate that the film has little else to recommend it. Would that I could say otherwise.