Thursday, December 04, 2008

Big Black Cadillac Records

The movie Cadillac Records comes out tomorrow. It's a not entirely accurate portrayal of Leonard Chess' professional and personal relationships with blues artists Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, Little Walter, Chuck Berry, and Etta James. I listened the soundtrack album today.

Beyonce Knowles plays Etta James onscreen, and attempts four Etta classics on the soundtrack: "At Last", "All I Could Do Was Cry", "I'd Rather Go Blind", and "Trust in Me". Of these four, "At Last" is the most successful, but it could never surpass Etta's performance of this perennial wedding favorite. The string arrangements are faithful to the originals, but Beyonce can't match the wild edge of anger and despair that Etta James brought to her classic ballads of love and loss.

While the path from blues to rock was being forged by Chess artists like Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley (who is unforgiveably excluded from the film), Etta James was pursuing an opposite course. Barely out of her teens, she was already well-known as a sensual R&B shouter when she arrived at Chess. Etta wanted to sing the torch songs and jazz standards of the 30's and 40's, and the Chess brothers wanted to be known for more than the blues. Both artist and label sought crossover success in the pop charts. Etta James' debut for Chess, At Last (and the stellar Second Time Around) placed her unbridled passion in the unfamiliar (but sympathetic) surroundings of Riley Hampton's mannered orchestration. Like sweet and sour, or yin and yang, it's an addictive blend of apparent opposites.

Will Cadillac Records inspire its audience to seek out the original Chess Records classics? Can it inspire, if its star Beyonce doesn't muster the firepower of Etta James on screen or in song? The actor Eamon Walker turns in a convincing soundtrack performance of Howling Wolf's "Smokestack Lightning", and Jeffrey Wright does a satisfactory Muddy Waters impression on "I'm a Man", "Hoochie Coochie Man", and "I Can't Be Satisfied". Mos Def can't quite catch the vocal playfulness of Chuck Berry (but is reportedly quite funny in the film). Beyonce and Adrien Brody (as Leonard Chess) get mixed notices for their acting; Jeffrey Wright seems to be the standout performer, according to film reviewers.

3 Comments:

At 12/09/2008 9:03 AM , Blogger piehammer said...

I wonder how many people would even know to look back and compare Beyonce's version to the original. My guess is that those who would are not in the target audience demographic for the film.

and stuff.

 
At 12/09/2008 1:07 PM , Blogger jonderneathica said...

You are probably right, although anyone who has been to a wedding reception in the last decade has heard "At Last".

 
At 12/09/2008 5:31 PM , Blogger piehammer said...

...and will probably say "I didn't know Beyonce sang that song!"

If ya liked it, ya shoulda put a ring on it.

Yeyah.

 

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home