"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend," is what we hear at the end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
. So when we see the tag line that a movie has been 'based on a true story,' we're used to thinking then that they're gonna stretch the truth and flub some facts for dramatic purposes. The fact that Salieri and Mozart weren't the mortal enemies as portrayed in Amadeus
doesn't mean that it wasn't a fine film.
In the same way, the fact that Cadillac Records
plays with the truth doesn't take away from the fact that it's a fine film too, portraying the rise and fall of legendary Chicago blues label Chess Records. Jeffrey Wright's portrayal as the tough, hard-living Muddy Waters is wonderful and inspired and there's also great performances by Columbus Short as the untamed Little Walter, Gabrielle Union as Muddy's long-suffering wife Geneva Wade, Eamonn Walker as the pugnacious Howlin' Wolf, Mos Def as the dapper, playful Chuck Berry and Adrian Brody as the hustler with a heart Leonard Chess. And yes, Beyonce does a good turn here too as the damaged Etta James- it's tough to watch her sing "At Last" and not be moved. I think she was better here than in Dreamgirls
. And also give the film credit for not glossing over Chess's creative book-keeping practices (which was, and is, part and parcel of the biz).
So yeah, it's a good story but is it really history? Phil Chess, co-founder of the label, is buried in the story. Sonny Boy Williamson and Bo Diddley are both totally M.I.A. from the film too. And as others have pointed out, Ms. James physically resembled Jennifer Hudson more than her Dreamgirls
co-star but then again, Hudson wasn't the executive producer of the movie (Beyonce was). Also, the timeline between Elvis and the army and the Beach Boys ripping "Surfin' USA" from Chuck seems a little confused too. Maybe we should be grateful that the film skipped the whole 'psychedelic' phase of the label but the 'folk' phase deserves credit as some great music came out of that time.
And while the soundtrack doesn't match the original records (what could??), the songs themselves are still a reminder of how great the material still sounds: Muddy's "I'm A Man" and "Hoochie Koochie Man," Berry's "No Particular Place To Go" (one of my faves from his catalog) and Etta's "At Last" and "I'd Rather Go Blind."
And though the scene where Wolf takes back his guitarist (the legendary and still kicking Hubert Sumlin
) from Muddy is memorable, here's the way I heard it from Hubert himself a few years ago. Hubert was planning to leave Muddy's band and let his intentions become known. The band's pianist, the raw-tempered Otis Spann, didn't take kindly to that and came after him, swinging a chain. In a panic, Hubert got Muddy into a head-lock, telling Spann to back off. He dragged Muddy over to a phone to call Wolf and plead for help. Wolf showed up, telling Spann to back off and took Hubert back under his wing.
The scene in the movie where Walter drives his car into the Chess offices did happen too though there was more to it. Supposedly, right after he did this and demanded a new car, the Chess brothers gave him the money for it. Walter drove to a bank but didn't park there. Instead, he parked in the middle of the road and casually took his time walking into the bank as traffic madly honked around him.
Maybe scenes like these were a little too nuts to become a believable part of an already semi-fictionalized story (fact stranger than fiction?) but then again, it brings us back to the issue of what's fiction in a 'based on a real story' movie. Come to think of it, which musical bio-pics DID very accurately portray their subject(s)?