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Rock 'n' roll has been around long enough now that most of us never knew an age that didn't have rock music. The genre's early days are about as misty and mythical as Homer's Odyssey, and are likewise filled with half-imagined heroes, monsters and poetic posturing.
But rock did not spring out of our collective consciousness fully formed and armed. It took a while. And one of rock's primary incubators was Chess Records on Chicago's South Side.
In the beginning there was Muddy Waters, a bluesman who electrified folk spirituals with his horn-like voice and otherworldly guitar. Then came Little Walter, a harmonica-playing dynamo tormented by personal demons. One after another, Howlin' Wolf screamed, Etta James cooed and Chuck Berry duck-walked through Chess' state-of-the-art studios.
Leonard Chess presided over them all. A Polish immigrant with an unquenchable desire for success, he transformed himself from a seedy nightclub owner into one of the most powerful moguls in music. He'd buy Cadillacs for his successful artists and bankroll their lifestyles while they handed him hit after hit after hit.
When Muddy Waters first came onboard, he told a deejay that he was "part of the Chess family." And, to Leonard, that sounded about right: Indeed, when Muddy signs his contract with Leonard, the bluesman mentions that it feels like he's signing a marriage license. "That's what this is," Leonard says. "'Til death do us part."
For one major player in Chess' history, that proved to be all too true.
It's not altogether clear in the film whether Leonard cared more for his musicians or for the money they brought in. But there's no question he took great care of Muddy. Granted, Muddy put Chess Records on the map. But when the now-legendary performer's career starts to decline, Leonard continues to support him and his makeshift family in fine style (though he sometimes skims royalties from other, more successful artists to do so). He clearly feels a sense of loyalty to Muddy. And the bluesman—at least for most of the movie—returns the favor.
Howlin' Wolf wants no such "charity" from Leonard. He sees Muddy as little more than a well-dressed "Uncle Tom," dependant on Leonard's kindness to fund his lifestyle. When Leonard asks Wolf if he'd like a Cadillac like Muddy's, Wolf thumps the hood of his dilapidated truck and says, "I own it. It doesn't own me." He refuses to take out advances on expected royalties and, when a prominent musician and dear friend of Muddy dies, it's Wolf, not Muddy, who can afford to pay for much of the funeral.
Most major characters struggle with their own devastating flaws. But sometimes the film shows how these flaws—from Little Walter's drinking habit to Etta James' bitter rage—can poison the best things in life.
The film also shows how the mainstreaming of blues and the birth of rock helped integrate America. Chuck Berry is shown as a civil rights crusader, eating baloney sandwiches outside "whites only" restaurants. Early on, deejays call Muddy's music "race records." Later, folks came to call it, simply, brilliant.
Most everyone in Cadillac Records dabbles in dalliances. Let's start with Leonard—arguably the most chaste of the bunch.(Which isn't saying much.) We see him engaged in some sort of sexual activity with a woman when the film opens; he's on top of her with her legs wrapped around his middle. "When are we getting married?" she asks. Never, it turns out. Though Leonard would like to, the girl's father makes it clear that she won't be marrying any "schmuck" like Leonard. Leonard eventually finds and marries someone else and, in his early days on the road with Muddy, staunchly refuses to cheat on his wife with any of the women who come a callin'.
That appears to change when Etta arrives on the scene. Suggestive conversations lead to suggestive touches. When Etta OD's on smack, Leonard revives her, kisses her, lies on top of her and surely would've had sex with her had Muddy not interrupted.
We also see Leonard and his wife in the throes of sex. There's no explicit nudity. There is explicit movement.
Muddy has a steady named Geneva, whom he meets when he first arrives in Chicago. "You're trouble, you know that?" She tells him. Muddy responds, "Yep, I know that. What about you?" The next time we see them, they're in bed together, moving and gyrating and climaxing. Later, we see Muddy taking a bubble bath, pulling Geneva into the tub with him when he learns that his song's hit the radio.
Muddy has far fewer qualms about cheating than Leonard does. He cavorts with a bevy of women and gives expensive gifts to many of them. In return, it's implied that one gives him oral sex. (The scene cuts as she's moving her head toward him.) And he has sex with another unidentified woman after they shed their clothes. (There's no explicit nudity shown.)
Some of Muddy's blues lyrics are suggestive. And he opens a champagne bottle during a show, showering women in the audience with a froth of double entendre.
Geneva does not stray, though Little Walter makes moves on her. When she tells Walter that she's Muddy's woman, he says, "He's got a lot of woman. He can spare one."
We're told that Chuck Berry's only real vice is flesh, and we see him invite a couple of girls into his Cadillac so they can show him "what they know." Later he's in the back seat with three nude women. (The camera takes in their naked backs and breasts from the side.)
We hear about Berry's infamous arrest for taking an underage girl across state lines. As he's being hauled away by police, he suggests his arrest is a racist attack, blithely telling the officers that perhaps they could swing by Jerry Lee Lewis' house on the way to jail and visit his 13-year-old bride.
There's quite a bit of sexual posturing. Walter pulls suggestively at the crotch of his pants. And Etta mentions that she was the product of an out-of-wedlock relationship between legendary pool player Minnesota Fats and her prostitute mother.
Little Walter is a little on edge. He shows Muddy's kids the gun he always carries, telling them he carries it in case "any good guys need shooting." He pulls it on a rival harmonica player when the other player punches him in the face (Walter shoots a few rounds around the nightclub for emphasis) and blows away a con man masquerading as him. Walter and a couple of officers get into a heated argument that culminates in the policemen slamming his head down repeatedly on the hood of his blood-spattered Cadillac.
[Spoiler Warning] Walter is eventually beaten to death after he tries to back out of a gambling debt. Audiences don't see the beating, but they do see Walter crawl into Muddy's house, bashed and bruised and bleeding, where he dies in Geneva's arms.
Leonard gets beaten up by some neighborhood toughs. Later, we see him tear up his own office. Howlin' Wolf thumps a would-be killer with a chair.
Crude or Profane Language
About 85 f-words and 25 s-words. The n-word is used. Jesus' name is abused. As is God's. (It's paired with "d--n" nearly 10 times.)
Drug and Alcohol Content
Little Walter appears onscreen as a troubled teetotaler. Then he takes his first sip (at Muddy's suggestion) after his mother dies. And from then on, we rarely see him sober, becoming more erratic and unstable with each gulp. Muddy also drinks occasionally from a flask. And we see him visibly inebriated once. Etta screams for someone to serve her a bottle of gin—which she begins to drink with some speed. Etta also overdoses on heroin; she passes out in the middle of her living room floor, with a syringe discarded beside her.
Everyone smokes cigarettes. Leonard is rarely seen without one hanging from either his mouth or hand.
Other Negative Elements
Leonard is not a particularly honest music mogul. He gets a deejay to play Muddy's first song by bribing him. The movie also suggests that Leonard may have burned down his nightclub in order to use the insurance money to finance Chess Records. The postscript tells us that Muddy and a music writer successfully sued Chess for back royalties. Clearly, Leonard wasn't giving his stars all the money they earned.
Popular music and bad behavior seem to go hand in hand—so much so that the phrase "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll" has become a cliché. Watching Cadillac Records, it's apparent that problems with the sex and drugs part predates the rock 'n' roll part.
While the film appears to take liberties with the real story of Chess Records, the struggles of its various musicians seem to be, more or less, true to life. As a biopic, then, the film's pretty decent, and the music is great. The content is raw, though. And as a morality tale, it comes up wanting. Cadillac Records highlights how greatness can sometimes sprout and grow in a tangle of flaws: Little Walter and his alcoholism, Etta James and her drug use, Chuck Berry and his women. But these flaws are seen as obstacles or, worse, inconveniences. Not wrong behavior. And certainly not sin.
Some come with serious consequences—Walter, after all, dies—but sex is treated almost indifferently. Only when Geneva is suddenly saddled with one of Muddy's illegitimate children do we see the cost of adultery: tears of rage and heartbreak running down her cheeks as a tipsy Muddy Waters looks at both of them with bleary-eyed confusion. Does it stop him from sleeping around? Hardly.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Adrien Brody as Leonard Chess; Jeffrey Wright as Muddy Waters; Gabrielle Union as Geneva Wade; Mos Def as Chuck Berry; Beyoncé Knowles as Etta James; Columbus Short as Little Walter; Eamonn Walker as Howlin' Wolf; Cedric the Entertainer as Willie Dixon
Darnell Martin ( )