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).
Click here to read the rest of Nick Pinkerton’s review of Cadillac Records.