The story of electric blues

Submitted by cathy n on 25 February, 2009 - 2:30 Author: Matthew Thompson

I was prepared to be disappointed by Cadillac Records, the film about the legendary Chicago blues label Chess Records. All too often the music biopic is formulaic and unimaginative. Cadillac Records is in fact superior on a number of levels.

It helps that the soundtrack is based on the amplified slide guitar of Muddy Waters, the unique vocals of Howlin' Wolf and the chromatic hamonica of Little Walter that echoed across the black ghetto of Chicago's South Side throughout the 50s.

The plot also moves at a fast pace with a laconic voiceover by the actor playing Willie Dixon. Dixon, a ex-pro boxer, World War Two draft resister and civil rights campaigner, was the key figure at Chess: a talent scout, songwriter, bassist, producer and promoter whose autobiography was not immodestly titled I am the Blues.

This is not to say that there are no Hollywood touches: in an effort to create parallel lives between Muddy Waters and Leonard Chess - one Mississippi sharecropper McKinley Morganfield, the other Polish Jewish refugee Lejzor Czyz - it only partly depicts the true nature of their relationship, aptly described by others as that of plantation boss and field hand, and leads to some glaring character omissions, notably Phil Chess, Leonard's brother and co-founder of the label, and the pianist Otis Spann who Muddy Waters called "the ace in my hand."

Having said that, the cinematography is impressive, especially the scenes shot on the expanse of the Mississippi Delta with the railroad tracks heading over the horizon to the North and fame, and some of the performances such as those of Beyonce Knowles as Etta James and Mos Def as Chuck Berry are particularly close to life.

In Chicago, Chess was unrivalled except by VeeJay, with stars John Lee Hooker and Jimmy Reed, and the late 50s/early 60s West Side label Cobra whose younger artists like Otis Rush and Buddy Guy were recruited by Dixon to Chess. The decline in Chess records' popularity hinted at in the film was a result of a shift in African American political consciousness and musical tastes from civil rights and blues to 'black power' and soul in the 60s.

The story ends on an upbeat note however with Muddy Waters' pleasantly bemused reaction to his adulation by young, middle-class English blues devotees amusingly and movingly captured. A postscript also depicts the studio building's transformation into a visitor centre and recording facility for local musicians.

The electric blues bands of postwar Chicago had an incalculable impact on the course of popular music. It was here that the standard rock line-up of vocals, guitar, bass and drums was established and the instruments first amplified. Just one Muddy Waters track, Rollin' Stone, gave its name to one of the 60s most exciting bands, an iconic Bob Dylan song and a leading pop magazine. If it was not for the racism of 50s America, the output of Chess' stellar blues roster would easily have outshone the crude copies of their songs by white artists. The telling of their story on film is long overdue.

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