Cadillac Records (2008, dir. Darnell Martin) is the somewhat fictionalized story of how Leonard Chess founded a Chicago record company devoted to recording the music of talented African American singers from the Deep South and elsewhere: Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Howlin' Wolf, Willie Dixon, Little Walter, Etta James, and others. Chess, played by Adrian Brody, is an ambiguous and problematic figure in the film. When we first meet him he is having money problems and vows to the woman he wants to marry that he will make money and buy her a Cadillac. He plans to open a night club for African American patrons. Money is a motive for Chess from the start, and it's never really clear in the film whether he's more interested in the talent and music of his artists than he is in their money-making potential. He rewards them for their success by giving them Cadillacs, or renting houses for them to live in, but he doesn't offer much in the way of regular pay, and this becomes an increasing issue of concern for the musicians.
Cadillac Records takes the position that talented black singers such as Muddy Waters and Etta James paved the way for the rock and roll revolution of the 1950s, but that because they lived in pre-Civil Rights America, their options were limited. Their music was marketed as "race music." They could perform only in venues reserved for black patrons. Even when Chuck Berry breaks through with music that isn't immediately categorizable as "race music"—some think it is country music—he is forced to perform to white and black audiences who are kept on separate sides of the room. Cadillac Records like other films about this era suggests that music became a way of dissolving racial barriers. But these singers often had to pay the price–Little Walter was beaten to death, Chuck Berry sent to prison. And none of these singers initially realized great financial rewards for their music.
Most troubling of all was that these singers didn't receive the rewards and respect their music should have earned them. The Beach Boys steal the melody of one of Berry's songs, and he sues them (successfully). Elvis Presley rises to fame performing music in the style that Waters and others popularized. So too do the Rolling Stones. The idea here is that white singers appropriated the music of African American singers. Undoubtedly, that contention is true. But what is arguable is the question of theft. Although there were clearly some instances of theft (see the Beach Boys above) most often, I'd contend, what was happening here was influence. Singers like Presley loved the music they heard on black radio stations. They loved and wanted to sing it themselves. And because American society in the 1950s was what it was, white singers had a better chance of succeeding in the music industry than black singers, who had a limited audience.
The actors in this film are effective. Beyoncé is outstanding as Etta James—her performance of James standards are remarkable (apparently, James herself is not happy with the praise Beyoncé has received for these performances, or for her performance of "At Last" at the Obama inaugural balls). Jeffrey Wright is good as Muddy Waters—in imitation of Waters, he mumbles many of his lines, and his acting is mannered. My favorite of all in the film is Eamonn Walker, who played Howlin' Wolf—there was not enough of him here.
As Harry Chess, Adrian Brody plays the character who becomes the symbol of white exploitation of black singers—more specifically, of white Jewish exploitation—in the film. It's difficult to know what to think of him, or of the view the film takes towards him. He appears to enjoy the music of the singers he discovers, but he never adequately compensates them for their records. What he is most interested in is a "crossover" singer, whose work can sell to and appeal to a white audience—he had found that in Chuck Berry before he went to prison--finally he discovers the crossover artist he dreamed of in Etta James, in whom he appears to be romantically interested. When he dies, she is the only one of the singers to whom he leaves anything—a house. Does Chess truly love Etta James, or is he simply deeply grateful to her for her success as a crossover singer?
Singers are often shown struggling for control over their music and how it's recorded. Muddy Waters, the first singer to sign with Chess, is relatively compliant. He's literally discovered in a cotton field, by folklorist Alan Lomax, and the image of a young Waters working away in the fields is repeated several times in the film, as if to suggest that in moving from the cotton fields of Mississippi to the studio of Leonard Chess in Chicago he is trading one life of subjugation for another. He's slow to develop resistance to Leonard's controlling influence, though ultimately he does, and in the end confronts him openly. Little Walter is clearly troubled when Chess tells him how to play the harmonica or turn off his amp. Howlin' Wolf, on the other hand, makes clear to Chess that he will control how music is played when he is recording it. In the end, when Chess has Etta James recording music to a lush string accompaniment, the suggestion is that he sacrifices the integrity of the music to the cause of profit. A similar issue is displayed in a quite different way in the film Ray (2004), when Ray Charles decides to record a country and western album, and when he records other tunes that are decidedly in a mainstream, easy-listening genre, rather than the rhythm and blues music from early in his career. Fellow black musicians, and his largely black audience, feel betrayed.
It's difficult to assess the arguments this film seeks to forward—the theft of the African American musical tradition by white producers and performers, and the exploitation of black musicians by white Jewish Americans. The film implies the latter argument but largely avoids examining it in any candid detail. This is unfortunate. The uneasy relationship between Jewish Americans and African Americans needs careful study. A problem with the film is the question of accuracy—it leaves out Leonard's brother Phil entirely, who helped run Chess Records. It also oversimplifies the recording history of some of the performers before they signed with Chess Records, and entirely omits their careers following Leonard Chess' death. Basically, this is a filmic treatment of historical characters and situations, but it is not a documentary—it is a fictionalization of facts. It works better as an entertainment, a film about music, than it does as a study of the popularization of the Chicago Blues, and of singers like Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf.