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Words from a robbed man: Jeffrey Wright of 'Cadillac Records'

January 22, 2009 |  3:34 pm

J_wright_2 We at Pop & Hiss are happy to join in the annual kvetch-fest over the Oscar noms -- here's the full list -- and say both Batman and the Boss deserved what they didn't get. But in between lamenting the academy's failure to recognize a monumental mainstream movie, and puzzling over the exclusion of Springsteen's poignant "The Wrestler" from the lead song category, let's not forget another glaring music-related omission: Jeffrey Wright for leading actor.

Jeffrey Wright's performance as Muddy Waters in "Cadillac Records" didn't merely bring to life a departed titan of American popular music. With subtlety, sexiness and class, Wright embodied a primary conflict experienced by music's pioneers: their careers were often enabled by white allies in the music business, but those "best friends" also frequently used them as if they were indentured servants.

Wright's Waters is intelligent, wary and fully in possession of his talents. He's also unable to resist his love of bling, drink and ladies, or to think his way out of the box Leonard Chess lovingly constructs for him. Wright's Muddy runs on a complex mix of pride, resentment and fatalism; the actor's performance shows how these emotions translated into some of the most powerful blues ever recorded.

I recently interviewed the critically venerated actor by phone for this feature, about film actors portraying musicians, including Jamal Woolard as the Notorious B.I.G. and Wright as Waters. After the jump, a few excerpts from that chat, in which he reflects on Muddy's style, the blues -- and the chances for his own recording career.

I read that you chewed tobacco to help get Muddy's inflection down while singing.

I did chew, but just to bring more of a Southern thing into my mind. Muddy used to sing out of the side of his mouth. [Chewing] would create this asymmetry in my mouth that just helped me find him a little more. It wasn't that he chewed tobacco, though he might have. It was really just to affect the shape of my mouth and to keep me further in the Southern base.

In his music, Muddy always projected so much class. You really capture that.

If you look at the early pictures of him, there is a meticulousness to him, even on the plantation. There's a shot of him and Son Sims sitting on a porch that's taken I think by Alan Lomax  on his second trip to record him, and Muddy has these white bucks on and these slacks and this shirt -- there was always a sense of personal expression of regality and pride that came through in his dress and his manner and in the ideas about masculinity that his music expresses.

I really like that scene on Stovall's Plantation, where you first play for Lomax, who was down there collecting field recordings for the Library of Congress. And I was happy to see a portrayal of John Work III, Lomax's African American partner, though it wasn't a speaking role.

I thought it was critically important that John Work be in that scene and kind of insisted that he be sketched in there. It didn't seem to make any sense to me to revisit that kind of exclusive mythology in 2009 that's been disseminated for the last, how many years? Lomax wouldn't have been down there himself without John Work. It was Work who commissioned Lomax by seeking out funding, in a backhanded way, because he didn't have the money.

That scene also shows you singing an acoustic blues song.

I personally had to pay for half of that song, "Country Blues," to be in the movie. It was an odd experience. But that song is the kernel planted in the Mississippi dirt, for all of the blues to follow. It's been done as "Walking Blues" by Charley Patton; Son House had a version. It represents musical time zero. So I thought it had to be there. And also, the poetry of the song encapsulates the emotionality of the blues so beautifully.

When we shot that scene, we were down in Louisiana, and I was wondering at times if we had film in the camera, we were moving so fast. It was unbelievable. We shot that scene as the sun was going down, and the light is just great.

So you didn't have a lot of time to shoot the musical numbers?

We never had an opportunity to rehearse as a band before the cameras rolled. It was beyond amazing ... The rawness and spontaneity that arise because of the urgency of shooting is a positive, but at the same time, the opportunity to really prepare, and to groom and hone and rely on your skills as a performer to bring about spontaneity -- that wouldn't have been a bad way to go either. And the difference between our shooting and Muddy's recording sessions is that Muddy was a master musician being recorded in the moment. I'm not a master musician. I do all right, acting-wise. But if you really want to create a masterful performance you have to have time to be able to shape it.

For example, with "Hoochie Coochie Man," there are two performances of it in this movie. The one in the studio that we shot, which felt to me to be a bit first-level, seemed not to have the full potency that the song deserved within the movie. I had to literally beg for an opportunity to do the song again, because we'd shot it the first time with 1 1/2 takes. We had one take after we finished shooting "I'm a Man." They rolled the soundtrack and we hit it once and that was it. But because Steve [Jordan, the film's musical director] was playing drums in the back -- Steve gave us a confidence and he created the space and the confidence for me, from the recording to the performance.

Singing the songs in this film, and playing guitar, did you hope to match Muddy's performances?

I've played two artists -- Muddy Waters and Jean Michel Basquiat. It's not my intention for the audience to come away from watching "Basquiat" thinking that they should go check out more of my drawings, or that folks come away from "Cadillac Records" seeking out more of my singing. The idea is to shine increased light, not only on the lives of these artists, but on their work.

So you don't have plans to shift toward a recording career, a la Joaquin Phoenix?

Acting comes freely from me. It requires work, but it comes freely. Song has to be yanked out of me. I have to put my fist down and yank the music out.

-- Ann Powers

Photo credit: Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times