« Previous Post | Pop & Hiss Home | Next Post »

Backtracking: 'Cadillac' soundtrack doesn't stack up against originals

Muddywatter_universal_300 Jeffrey Wright does Muddy Waters justice, but Beyoncé and Mos Def fall short.

Just as Joaquin Phoenix did a marvelous job capturing the music and spirit of Johnny Cash in the film "Walk the Line," Jeffrey Wright delivers a knockout portrayal of bluesman Muddy Waters in the recently released period drama “Cadillac Records.”

The actor's vocal dynamics are so striking on songs "I'm a Man" and "(I'm Your) Hoochie Coochie Man" that he alone is almost enough to make a winner out of the film's soundtrack, but he doesn't get enough help from his supporting cast.

Beyoncé’s attempts at the sultry stylings of Etta James and rapper-actor Mos Def's efforts to match the lilt of Chuck Berry fall so short that there's no reason to settle for anything less than the real thing.

Fortunately, some fast-thinking execs at Universal Music Enterprises have put together a rival collection to the soundtrack: "The Best of Chess" is a 16-track CD that contains the original versions of songs used in the film.

The set not only better salutes the legacy of Chess Records, but it also provides a more engaging look at some of the innocence and passion of rock's first decade.

In fact, the retrospective is so inviting that listeners will be tempted to dig deeper into the back catalog of Chess Records, the celebrated Chicago record company that, along with Atlantic and Sun, was one of the most important labels in the birth of rock 'n' roll.

"The Best of Chess"
Various Artists
Geffen/Chess/UME

The music: The retrospective includes the original versions of nine songs that are found on the 13-track single disc edition of the "Cadillac Records" soundtrack and seven songs featured only on the 26-track, two-disc deluxe edition -- so it's not possible to put "Best of Chess" against either of the soundtrack packages on a song-by-song basis. But it is possible to rate the versions on "Best of Chess" against the versions from the film.

Jeffrey Wright's "I'm a Man" versus Bo Diddley's "I'm a Man." In the movie, the song is called "I'm a Man," but Wright performs it more in the aggressive, rock-blues nature of the revised version that Waters titled "Mannish Boy" and recorded in "Hard Again," the 1977 album he made after leaving Chess Records. On the Chess compilation, the song is represented by the original Bo Diddley recording of "I'm a Man." In that battle, Wright deserves at least a tie with Diddley because his treatment has more of the power and lust of Waters' rendition. Tie goes to the soundtrack.

Beyoncé's "At Last" and "I'd Rather Go Blind" versus Etta James' recordings of the same tunes. Beyoncé is a gifted singer, but she's not a great stylist. She can hit all the notes, but she rarely makes us feel the extreme edges of emotion. That's a big limitation for someone who wants to operate in the shadow of James, a master when it comes to conveying what it's like to live through hardship. The difference between the versions of these songs goes a long way toward explaining why Beyoncé is known as a pop singer and James a blues singer. Score one for the retrospective.

Mos Def's "Nadine" and "No Particular Place to Go" versus Chuck Berry's recordings. Mos Def has lots of trouble copying Berry's "duck walk" in the film, and he has almost as many problems trying to reflect the vitality and edge of Berry on record. When you play the recordings back to back, Berry is the one who truly rocks. Score two more for the retrospective.

Eamonn Walker's "Smokestack Lightnin' " versus Howlin' Wolf's recording.
Walker deserves credit for even attempting a Howlin' Wolf song. There hasn't been anyone in the last 50 years who has shown the raw, primal fury of the Mississippi bluesman. Score wise, it's time for the soundtrack to throw in the towel.

Though most of the "Cadillac Records" interpretations are acceptable within the context of the film, they simply don't stand up against the originals. In an apparent move to give the soundtrack more clout, the album contains tracks by Beyoncé, rapper Nas and others even though they don't involve songs from the Chess era.

Too bad they didn't use the space on the record to give us more of Wright's odes to Muddy Waters.

Further listening: Chess' "The Definitive Collection" series is a bargain-hunter's delight. Each of the various discs in the series devoted to Chess' key blues, R&B and rock artists, including Berry, Waters, James and Bo Diddley, who is not represented on the soundtrack album. They contain at least 20 tracks and can be found for less than $10 each from Internet retailers.

For a more concentrated look at the blues history of Chess, the four-disc "Chess Blues" is highly recommended. Besides nearly two dozen tracks by Waters and Wolf, the set contains works by John Lee Hooker, Elmore James, Lowell Fulson, Sonny Boy Williamson and Buddy Guy.

The 101-song collection includes 19 previously unreleased recordings. The boxed set also includes a handsome, 64-page booklet with notes about each of the tunes.

--Robert Hilburn

LIVING UP TO A LEGEND: Several songs by Muddy Waters are included on “The Best of Chess Records." Credit: Universal Records.

Backtracking is a monthly column focusing on CD reissues and other pop items of historical interest. For previous editions, click here.

Beyonce_cad_90_related_2 Related: Beyonce wants to lasso the role of Wonder Woman

Related: Beyoncé: Lady sings the blues

Related: Snap Judgment: Beyonce's 'I Am ... Sasha Fierce'

Photo credit: TriStar Pictures

 
Comments () | Archives (6)

Do you people ever have anything good to say about Beyonce? I mean ever?

Comparing actors and pop stars to these artists is disingenuous at best and insulting at worst. I also find it condescending that somehow the "connection" between rock and roll and the blues is used to confer legitimacy on an art form fully capable of speaking for itself so to speak.

I expect more from Mr Hillburn for whom I hold the highest regard. I personally can't stand that whole "blues had a bay and they called it rock and roll' nonsense. If indeed Muddy uttered that phrase I suspect he may have been implying something other that the "birth" being the lifeline to credibility 50 years on.

Now that I'm through pissing and moaning-thanks Mr H for giving the og cats props!

I just saw the movie 1900 12-16-08

I am a professional musician in the Union since 1975
Beyonce does more than sound good, she put a different soul into the acting. Wait tell you see the tears in her eyes. She became something she is not...... STREET, and fatherless/motherless/loveless. There should be acting and singing parts winning awards. Don't even worry about the sellout Oscars

She became the part. I loved the acting and the singing she did.

I guess the critic is a hater.

I am going to go pay again and take my woman this time

Doc (32 carat ) Pete
Kimberly Records
Peters' Productions

I SAW THE MOVIE; AND I MUST SAY BEYONCE REALLY NEEDS TO STEP UP HER ACTING; IT WAS HORRIBLE THEY SHOULD HAVE FOUND ANOTHER PERSON TO PLAY ETTA JAMES, BEYONCE WAS NOTHING LIKE MRS. ETTA JAMES; THE SONG "AT LAST" SOUNDS LIKE BEYONCE SHE DID NOTHING TO IMPROVE THE SONG. THIS IS NOT OSCAR WORTHY IM A SORRY AND I AM A BEYONCE FAN, BUT THE GIRL CAN NOT ACT AND NEEDS TO BE TOLD TO STAY WITH THE MUSIC AND NOT ACTING; SHE IS NOT ON THE LEVEL OF A "JANET JACKSON" WHO COULD ACT AND IS THE GODDESS OF MUSIC AND DANCE. JANET HAS BEEN ACTING EVERY SINCE THE AGE OF SEVEN AND SHE IS A REALLY GOOD ACTRESS WHICH IS WHY HER MOVIES ALWAYS DEBUT AT #1 BECAUSE PEOPLE WANTS TO SEE WHAT LITTLE PENNY IS GOING TO DO.

I think people are beginning to see that she is a bit overrated. She is not an actress by no means. She's an individual who wanted to be in showbiz as a little girl (and now a woman) and her father set out to make it happen. Her character is questionable as once again there is scandal over her songwriting. "Once in a Lifetime" was written by Scott McFaron, Amanda Ghost, and Ian Dench wrote. Beyonce' is saying she wrote it...just like she wrote "Irreplacable"...oh no wait, Ne-yo wrote it.

I think she did a wonderful job it her best work so far i lease i think so


Advertisement
Connect

Recommended on Facebook



In Case You Missed It...

Video



Recent Posts


Tweets and retweets from L.A. Times staff writers.

Categories


Archives
 



Get Alerts on Your Mobile Phone

Sign me up for the following lists: