CD review for Dec. 5, 2008 |

CD review for Dec. 5, 2008

Margaret Hair

‘Cadillac Records’

Music from the motion picture

No one will ever be as good as most of the roster of Chess Records. An R&B who’s-who that included Chuck Berry, Etta James, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter and Muddy Waters, the iconic Chicago label shaped pop music at the time and influences it now.

In the movie that tells the Chess story, “Cadillac Records,” Mos Def takes on Chuck Berry, Beyonce Knowles sings as Etta James, and Jeffrey Wright poses as Muddy Waters. Columbus Short (Little Walter) and Eamon Walker (Howlin’ Wolf) round out the cast.

Wright makes a believable Waters, and the soundtrack opens with his version of “I’m a Man,” complete with a Watersy distant growl and swampy inflection.

Knowles is a decent James, and her handling of “At Last” is respectable. She doesn’t have the guttural, soulful range that James has, and she can’t sing as organically as the woman she’s playing. But she avoids over-embellishing the song – which can’t be said for most people who have recorded it – and even if the tempo is a little fast, it works.

Mos Def is consistently adorable as Chuck Berry, which is not an accurate or reasonable way to play him. But who cares? It can’t be nearly as hard to watch as Michael J. Fox spasming to “Johnny B. Goode” in the first “Back to the Future” movie.

The production on some songs is weirdly and inappropriately modern, with some of James’ best R&B ballads cheesed over with what sound like computer-generated effects. It’s one of the many things that dilutes the original material the soundtrack draws on.

The music that came out of Chess was great because of grit – both in the sound quality and the people who performed it. Wright doesn’t have Waters’ Mississippi Delta upbringing, Knowles doesn’t have James’ addictions, and Mos Def doesn’t have Berry’s arrest record.

Acting can only take you so far, and you can’t fake the kind of soul it took for any of the Chess musicians to create what they did.

Rating: ”’

– Margaret Hair, 4 Points

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