LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT STORYTELLING
I recommend renting Cadillac Records - the flick that came out in 2008 about Chess Records. It starts with Muddy Waters and ends with Etta James and in between, there’s a whole history of the blues in America.
It’s not a perfect movie by any means. Partially because the amount of characters in the film - Muddy, Little Walter, Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf, Etta James, Chuck Berry (a DELIGHTFUL Mos Def), Leonard Chess and his brother Phil - could all have their own movies and they’d all be pretty amazing. A Chess Records HBO miniseries may have been a better bet. When I had to go to a press conference* for this film for work, which was one of the most fun ones by far, and partially because I could listen to Jeffrey Wright talk all day, he put it accurately: “these guys are superheroes.” And they are.
But there’s something kind of magical about this film (and, note: frankly I think you can turn it off the minute Beyonce comes on screen - not because she’s bad, per se, but Etta just sucks the momentum from the flick - my theory is that B got the funding, her role got expanded, and the film lost a little magic), and that’s in total evidence here, as Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker) and Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright) face off.
This is a GREAT SCENE in film. You want Howlin vs. Muddy the whole film. You want the Howlin’ Wolf story after you see this (he’s only in for ten minutes, tops). All of the songs in this film were performed by the actors (so that’s Walker doing his best Wolf - pretty good, right?), and I think Darnell Martin (the director, who, by the way, is a woman) does a great job of having every performance in the film mean something, where there’s something at stake.* You get the idea of Howlin’ and Muddy’s one-upmanship and rivalry here. You could build a story around it. I would’ve given Walker an Oscar for this performance; I really think it’s a great one. I was unfamiliar with Walker previous to this film and shocked to realize that he was British.
You know how I know the film worked? I couldn’t really get it out of my head. I went out and bought the Howlin’ Wolf biography and his albums.
Funny enough, when I had to go to a Precious screening for work, at the after-thing, Jeffrey Wright was there. (Andre Leon Talley was there too, in a jacket that had bedazzled/glittered on it I AM THE AMERICAN DREAM on the back.) We had a quick conversation at the bar where I was like, “dude, Cadillac Records, I got the Howlin’ Wolf biography in my purse right now! Thanks for the film.” It was nice to be able to share that. And - honestly, I was a little drunk - so I’m not sure whether he was referring to Precious (I think he was) or Cadillac when he compared the film to “going 36 rounds with Jack Johnson.” That phrasing, though: so on target.
*At the press conference, Columbus Short, who played Little Walter and a dancer-turned-actor whose previous stuff included Stomp the Yard and Studio 60, seemed to be frothing at the bit to say hey, I’m an actor. Put me in good stuff. He’s right, too - he’s great in this movie and clearly talented. It’s such a bummer that the films aren’t out there, as far as I can tell. (I feel the same way about Anthony Mackie and hopefully The Hurt Locker helps as it appears to be helping.)
* Glee, which has so many musical numbers, has little-to-no punch with them because when do they mean something? I thought Kristin Chenoweth doing “Maybe This Time” in her guest spot killed because in that context - boozy ex-star trying to make a comeback - it worked so well.