“CADILLAC RECORDS,” which opens Friday, will be the latest film to explore a blues story, this one about Chess Records, the 20th century’s single most important blues record label. It proffers a convincing likeness of Muddy Waters, but tweaks the facts in other areas.
That’s the way it goes with the blues, the music’s historical chapters filled with myths and half-truths, stories getting written down only after being handed down from one generation to another. The door has long been open for speculation and interpretation. Case in point: The five impressionistic films Martin Scorsese executive produced for PBS about the blues that touched on historical flashpoints but ultimately shied from being definitive documents.
The only car, for example, Leonard Chess ever bought for Muddy Waters was a 1954 Olds ’98. That’s according to Robert Gordon’s 2002 Waters biography “Can’t Be Satisfied” and Nadine Cohodas’ Chess brothers bio “Spinning Blues Into Gold. A different story gets told in the film “Cadillac Records,” in which Chess gives a Caddy to all his popular artists.
The film also neglects to include Leonard’s brother Phil and one of the label’s stars, Bo Diddley, and adds a romance between Chess and Etta James that is most likely fictional. (Lack of the Chess brothers’ roots in jazz and involvement in vocal groups can be excused; and giving Leonard Chess “ears,” i.e., suggesting he heard the brilliance of Waters’ electric band and Chuck Berry’s early rock ‘n’ roll, is a falsehood).
OBVIOUSLY, “CADILLAC RECORDS” is not a movie made for blues purists, people who recite the dates guitarist Hubert Sumlin was out of Howlin’ Wolf’s band and part of Muddy’s outfit — a moment in history shortened in “Cadillac” to reveal the rivalry Wolf had with Waters. The blues of today bear little resemblance to the music that shaped Chess Records and some of the film’s most telling scenes — Waters being recorded on a plantation; Little Walter playing his blues harp through an amplifier for the first time — drive home the gut-level appeal of the music.
Ultimately, the film provides a sketch of Chicago blues in the 1950s, the family atmosphere and the tensions it engendered. It’s quite the contrast to “Milk,” the detailed biopic about the San Francisco politician and activist Harvey Milk. “Milk’ has started to generate new interest in the 1970s gay rights movement in San Francisco; it’s unlikely “Cadillac Records” and its soundtrack — even with Beyonce and Mos Def and several new songs — will spark a blues revival.
“Milk,” though, is one man’s story, one that had been covered in a book and an Oscar-winning doc. The stories behind “Cadillac” came from multiple angles and required the securing of several life rights in addition to musical licenses. Chuck Berry, James and Sumlin are the only living persons depicted; the estates of key Chess songwriter Willie Dixon and Waters are vigilantly controlled by heirs.
WHEN DAVID HIRSHLAND, president of Bug Music, the company that administers the songwriting catalogs of Dixon and Waters, presented the “Cadillac Records” script to the heirs, the caveat they attached was that the Waters-Chess relationship had to remain central to the pic.
Hirshland wanted to see the rights granted, figuring it was highly unlikely a “Muddy Waters Story” would ever be made. “Imagine my surprise two weeks later when I had to go back and tell them, there’s another film,” he said, referring to “Who Do You Love,” the film about Chess Records that focuses on Diddley and the blues musicians but does not include Berry or any of his music.
Rights issues don’t strictly limit the possibilities in feature films. The Smithsonian Channel recently aired a six-part blues and jazz series the narration of which contoured to the video rights secured from the Montreux Jazz Festival. Despite the presence of many strong performances, to call it a “history” was a serious misnomer.
Only one doc has thoroughly covered the oral history of the blues from the perspective of the people who made the music, Jay Levey’s “Blues Story.” Released in 2003 to PBS station at the time of the Scorsese pics, it was the sort of document that might have garnered attention if an actual blues renaissance had occurred. Like the music itself, “Blues Story” is a simple film, a chronological telling that starts before Robert Johnson and ends around the millennium. Like the best of the blues, it feels like truth itself.