Icons for icons
Being a dork who finds herself drawn to even bad movies about music, I’m intrigued by this movie “Cadillac Records“, and by “Cadillac”, they mean “Chess”. It’s fictionalized, so they changed the name from Chess Records. I can think of another movie that does this—“Grace of My Heart” borrowed heavily from Carol King’s life and her move from being a behind-the-scenes songwriter to up on stage. It allows you to take liberties, though from the IMDB listing, it looks like they didn’t change anyone’s name from real life.
Of course, the problem with movies like these is that your actors are trying to play people who are, in real life, usually full of verve, charisma, and of course massive talent. It seems, from the lack of success out there, that it’s really hard to embody that—you either fall short of the real life person’s presence, or you pull a Dennis Quaid and turn in a performance that implies that charisma is a form of mental illness, the bizarre choice he made when playing Jerry Lee Lewis in “Great Balls Of Fire”. Naturally, the temptation is to bring in people who already embody the presence that the original great musicians had, i.e. to bring in today’s music icons to play yesterday’s music icons. As an added bonus, you get someone who can perform.
But that also has a massive drawback: Most iconic musicians have a signature style, and replacing one with another is disconcerting. Which is why all eyes are on Beyoncé Knowles, who has been tapped to play Etta James. No one’s laughing up their sleeve or anything. Beyoncé did a great job singing James’ signature ballad “At Last” at Fashion Rocks. But there’s a lot more to James than songs like that. Check out this 1966 performance of “Something’s Got A Hold On Me”:
Upon thinking about it, it’s not as bad a mismatch as having Diana Ross play Billie Holiday, as she did in “Lady Sings The Blues”. It’s actually hard to fault filmmakers for taking this route, because your only other choice is picking people who can imitate the original but don’t have the verve of someone who really is an original. (In a full circle, Beyoncé also played a fictional version of Diana Ross in “Dreamgirls”, which feels a little more right, in that both singers see their talent eclipsed by a sense that they’re sellouts, and both are unfairly served by that.) But there’s still a fear that they’re going to slap a veneer on everything that takes the fun out of it. You can just compare and contrast how James looks in the video with Beyoncé in the picture to see what I mean. James is rocking a fantastic 60s “you bet I’m the singer” look—a ton of eyeliner and the blonde helmet hair. And she’s so into her singing that she kind of does some funky-looking moves that would be absolutely banished from your modern MTV video—and almost surely from this movie, as well. From the picture above, you can see they’ve modified James’ look so it’s more “tasteful”, but in doing so, they de-60s it, and you don’t see why it’s so fun anymore. Because god forbid someone rock a look that might prioritize awesomeness over catering to a very narrow view of female beauty.
Still, I’m inclined to see the movie, just to see what they do with the story. What are your favorite portrayals of famous musicians in the movies? What portrayals make you want to stomp out of the theater, or at least click off the TV?
And to close out, I’m stoked to see that someone posted a version of James’ breakout hit “Wallflower (Roll With Me Henry)” on YouTube. It’s always a good time to hear this song.
I don’t think the original of this song charted, at least on the pop charts. Georgia Gibbs covered it, changed the word “roll” to “dance”, and flattened out the sound of it, and of course, that’s the one that charted. But I might be wrong about the relative chart performance of the two versions.