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Badder than Superman: Cadillac Records

Shake your hips! In Darnell Martin's new movie about how Mississippi blues became what we now call rock n' roll, Adrien Brody, Beyoncé Knowles, Jeffrey Wright, Mos Def, and Cedric the Entertainer bring legends like Etta James, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, and Howlin' Wolf to the big screen.
Beyonce"If you could play the guitar and sing your ass off, you were badder than Superman," says Willie Dixon at one point in Darnell Martin's new music biopic, Cadillac Records. Martin described the film in a recent New York press conference as a "series of love stories," starting with two men who changed the course of American music, Leonard Chess and Muddy Waters. Set in the turbulent period of 1950's Chicago, the film gets into the creation and life of Chess Records, a legendary label created by Leonard and his brother Phil, and how musicians like Waters, Little Walter, Howlin' Wolf, Chuck Berry, Willie Dixon (best known for writing songs like "Hoochie Coochie Man" and "Spoonful") and Etta James all got their start.


While Martin's screenplay tackles a wide swath of history, she admitted that "there were a number of people missing from this, like Bo Diddley, but if I covered everybody, that would be a miniseries." Instead, she's exploring "how black people made black music which is what we're listening to now," and the result is a great showcase for actors both underrated and underseen. Ever fantastic, Jeffrey Wright's mumbling, hard-edged Waters is turned into a singing superhero, a guy who's at his best when he's performing his sexually charged music. Columbus Short (Stomp the Yard) and Eamonn Walker (Oz), two actors unfamiliar to wide audiences, were compelling and surprising as harmonica genius Little Walter and Howlin' Wolf, respectively. It's a pleasure to watch Wright and Walker go toe-to-toe as two powerful Mississippi natives and former sharecroppers-turned-rivals. Mos Def is a blast of energy and cheer as Chuck Berry, and Beyoncé Knowles goes beyond her superstar recording persona to find the troubled and tough young woman underneath Etta James' sass. To support the movie, Martin and eight of the actors—Wright, Short, Walker, Def, Gabrielle Union, Cedric the Entertainer, and Adrien Brody—appeared at a press conference on Monday.


adrian and jeffreyOne of the main challenges for the actors was approaching how to play characters who are either living legends or recently passed away. Def cited Chuck Berry videos on YouTube as an integral part of his research. He added, "Reading about Chuck helped. His autobiography—a lot of it is written in the manner in which you'd imagine him speaking, sort of flowery, and gentlemanly. Listening to his music. His lyrics—I had lyrical respect. Chuck Berry's work is very unique, it's distinctive, it sets him apart. I really liked watching him talk. I watched Hail Hail Rock 'n' Roll [the Chuck Berry documentary]. I was practicing the duck walk, putting unnatural strain on my legs—"


At this point, a reporter asked, "Did you do the duck walk beforehand?" Def replied, "No." But Wright (who had a strong rapport with Def, likely from appearing together on Broadway in Topdog/Underdog) corrected him with a "You're always duck walking!"


Def appended his previous statement with, "Not with the regularity you need to duck walk. For a movie, we'd shoot, my legs and thighs would be like, 'Really, Mos? Really?'"


For Wright, looking into the life of Waters meant, "I had to research all the lawsuits! I was listening to Led Zeppelin, and it was like, that's Muddy's lyric and riff. After doing this movie, I hear so many Muddy Waters references that I hadn't heard before. It's unbelievable how he and they [the Chess Records musicians] influenced modern music, but the extent [to which they influenced music] was new to me. Have you heard Elvis Presley's "Trouble" from King Creole? [He starts to sing, "If you're looking for trouble..." and apes the guitar riff.] It's a direct rip-off of 'Hoochie Coochie Man.'"


Def added, "It's what the Beach Boys were doing with Surfin' USA." Changing the topic back to the Chess Records musicians, he continued, "These guys were using the music to create a context for themselves personally, socially, and in an economic way. How much their work shaped the identity of what we call America today—it's pretty phenomenal. Were all of them aware of how significant their contributions would be?"


MosWright picked up the thought: "If you look at the 60s, the soundtrack to the Cultural Revolution, redefining freedom, was rock and roll. In the late 80s and early 90s, the Berlin Wall fell to rock and roll. It was the soundtrack to freedom, and it had its roots in a specific kind of freedom, based on what these people were singing about. They were talking about the social issues and economic issues in the post-slavery world. These folks weren't putting on airs, and their music was equally authentic, and all that they had. It created a social space where the world could find freedom. it wasn't an accident."


That sort of research and insight led to the actors giving electrifying musical performances. Every scene that called for music, whether it was Waters singing his trademark "Hoochie Coochie Man" or Little Walter breaking out with "My Babe," had each actor working on how to recreate and make these songs their own. Def made sure to spread credit all around: "Kudos to everyone who had to perform those songs. And when I say kudos to them, I mean kudos to me. [Laughter] Everyone worked really hard."


Martin stressed that "every single one of them were up there with their own voices. Those [the songs] were the monologues."

Wright called the recording process inspiring, and mentions looking at the other actors' performances. "I've never been so informed by the work of other actors." He recalled checking out their renditions of the blues and thinking, "Oh man, is that Mos? Is that Columbus? Is that Eamonn?"


Def interrupted, proving his earlier comment right: "See? See?"


It was up to Wright to sum up the lasting impact of these musicians, and he did a hell of a job. A writer asked whether these guys were superheroes, and he replied, thoughtfully, "I do think the guys were as large as life. If artists can be heroes than these guys are it. They did everything but put on the cape and mask. They were superheroes. Because they had nothing. They were denied basic freedoms of dignity and humanity, but there was such authenticity to the way that they expressed themselves. Muddy Waters was illiterate, a sharecropper, but sitting on his porch, he had half of the western history of music in his back pocket."



Cadillac Records
opens everywhere on Friday, December 5th. Click here to buy tickets.
Buy your tickets to see Chuck Berry play on New Year's Eve at BB King's.


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