I grew up on blues music. My grandmother who just passed was a lover of BB King, Albert King, Bobby Blue Bland, and a number of other musicians. I have a subscription to eMusic.com, really for the sole purpose of having access to their amazing Blues and Jazz catalog–I can download 65 songs for about $15 bucks a month. I have read the auto/biographies of music legends Patti Labelle, Lena Horne, Ethel Waters, Billy Strayhorn, Chaka Khan, Nina Simone and Billie Holiday. And of course, Etta James’ Rage To Survive . Needless to say I knew a little something about James, and Chess Records before going to see Cadillac Records this weekend, and Beyonce’s performance of the living Blues and Rock legend.
The distortions and out-right lies that I detected in Cadillac Records from a book I read at least 5 years ago, has made me promise to go back and read books about the other musicians at Chess records also featured in the film, Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker), Little Walter (Columbus Short), Chuck Berry (Mos Def), Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer) and Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright). But here’s what I know, that you need to know before seeing this film and you get fooled into thinking this represents history in some way:
- ETTA JAMES AND LEONARD CHESS NEVER HAD A SEXUAL RELATIONSHIP. PERIOD. Etta James and Leonard Chess’ surviving son have both come forward and denied that aspect of the movie.
- Leonard Chess did not set up the meeting between Etta and the man she thinks is her father, Minnesota Fats. That meeting happened in the 1980 (if not 1990s) at a seniors home fats was residing (not in a restaurant). Leonard Chess died in 1959, a good 30 years before the film sets this up.
The effect of these two lies? To portray Etta’s character in the film, as a tragic mulatto. The way the character is written for the movie, Etta’s abandonment by her real father (who I don’t think she even knew was her father until AFTER her years at Chess) leads her to searching for a white father figure she thinks she finds in Chess. This also supposed to be the cause of her drug addiction and the primary motivation for her “tough girl” act. But I guess Beyonce as Executive Producer (or the studio or screenwriters or whomever) couldn’t stand to be in a movie and not be seen as the object of attraction, or that a white man was not the focus of the film and everyone in it.
The other performances I think are really great– Gabrielle Union in particular is a pleasant surprise. She actually shows that she has more acting range than the roles she’s usually given. And I also like the idea of a film that focuses not on a sole celebrity’s story, but on the significance of a group of musicians related through a label, and the work that they created together, but this film doesn’t accomplish that.
Want some real Etta? Check out my favorite Etta recording, a live version of her song I’d Rather Go Blind, with BB King on guitar and New Orleans legend Dr. John on joining on vocals.