When Syd Nathan, the CEO of King Records, died in 1968, James Brown, the label's greatest star, bought the desk from Nathan's office and had it fitted with a gold plaque reading "I Remember the Man Syd Nathan." Nathan was white, and Brown boastfully black--so how to account for this? If we were to believe the movies' official history of rock music, we can't; the narrative is one of the grudging black artist's innovation, white owner's exploitation, and cracker shyster's appropriation--the attitude summarized in Mos Def's insipid, ahistorical song "Rock 'n' Roll."
Def shows up in "Cadillac Records" as an insouciant Chuck Berry. Enlightened liberals in the audience will enjoy their chance to applaud their preconceptions when Def/Berry catches out the Beach Boys' plagiarizing and plays martyr to bigotry during his Mann Act arrest, but screenwriter/director Darnell Martin's democratic treatment places Berry's voice as just one among a multitude. In fact, when Berry first arrives in Chicago, he's playing country guitar twang--Martin's subtle scoff at the myth of "stolen" music. (Besides, as everyone knows, Berry actually lifted his style from a time-traveling Alex P. Keaton.)
Martin's fictionalization of the rise and fall of Chicago's Chess Records (1950-68) uses the declamatory blues song "I'm a Man" as its theme, and follows several men attempting to assert that fact through womanizing, moving 45s, and packing .45s: immigrant label founder Leonard Chess (b. Czyz, in Poland; played by Adrien Brody); his first star, Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright); Waters's protege, Little Walter (Columbus Short). The aspiration and feeling at times ring as pure as Midnight Ramble melodrama, everyone trying to get through their own way, with contempt for the rest--Waters in a day-by-day blue-collar trudge, Walter through pure anarchy and, with imperious independence, Howlin' Wolf (Eamonn Walker, in a furnace-hot performance).
It's a scattered movie, alloyed by uniformly high performances and extravagant emotion. Considering its aspirations to historical scope, the timeline is radically reshuffled (Elvis leaving for the army after the Rolling Stones hit Chicago?); key characters (Chess's brother Phil) are missing, as well as musical elements--"hillbilly" is only alluded to, jump blues not at all; the Southern church is entirely absent (this is a felt lack, as you can't rightly make devil's music with no God).
Rock obscurantists can be worse sticklers than sci-fi fanboys, but it must be said that "Cadillac Records" doesn't condescend to history even when jumbling facts--scenes are largely treated as interactions between feasible humans, not as excuses to broadcast racial parable. Respect is paid to the complex cultural pluralities behind the music.
Here, the blues, at one point, is described as "a whole lot of fuckin'", and that's what we see: Chess fuckin' his roster with improvisatory bookkeeping and unconscious paternalism; the artists fuckin' themselves (and Chess) with profligacy and belligerent living; and actual fuckin', as the film's later chapters are dedicated much to the affair (historically unsubstantiated) between Chess and his top 1960s signee Etta James (Beyonce Knowles). The story goes that Chess had to leave the studio to hide his tears when he first heard James sing "I'd Rather Go Blind"--Brody's expressive devastation and the luxurious masochism in Knowles's voice entwine here to the highest in the film's Himalayan emotional peaks.
The child of all that fuckin' was electric rock 'n' roll music, sharing the genes of declasse Eastern European Jews who emigrated to the Brill Building from piss-poor shtetls, Scotch-Irish rednecks from the rawest backwood hollers, and sharecroppers and their sons from Mississippi Delta shacks. It was the 20th century's truest music, and "Cadillac Records" doesn't disgrace it.
[Nick Pinkerton is a Reverse Shot staff writer, a contributor to Stop Smiling, and a regular critic for the Village Voice.]