Cadillac Records: The “UNTRUE” Story of Etta James
In a world filled with smoke and mirrors, it always inspires me to see and experience artists who exude a powerful sense of truth. Their truth is not built with the intent of gimmick-like controversy but a “need” to be true to themselves no matter the cost. That is the stern virtue that I highly respect in the artistry and legend of Ms. Etta James. With that said, it greatly disappoints me that in light of her authenticity, this truth has failed to be depicted on the screens of Hollywood. Of course we all saw Beyonce’s “role” in the movie Cadillac Records but unfortunately that role was not the factual life of Etta James.
For those of you who’ve never read the the autobiography of Etta James, Rage To Survive, I strongly encourage you to check out this book. Once you indulge yourself in her life, you quickly comprehend the fierce spirit, complexities and facts never fully realized in the Beyonce produced film, Cadillac Records. For instance, while the film plays heavily on a romantic relationship with Chess Records head, Leonard Chess, this information was never once mentioned in Etta’s autobiography. Now for a woman to confess her trials of domestic abuse, her mindset of being an addict and other uncensored tidbits, having an affair with the boss would have easily been a drop in the bucket – unless it never happened. According to Marshall Chess, son of Leonard Chess, he had these words to say concerning the issue of this affair:
“Now, my father was no angel, but (he) was never caught in an affair,” Chess said. “It never happened.” He even asked James, a longtime friend, and she told him, “He kissed me on the cheek once.”
During Etta’s early days at Chess, she was very open in having a relationship with Harvey Fuqua, member of the Moonglows and later played a pivotal role in the formation of Motown Records. With Fuqua, Etta went on to sing songs like “I Just Want to Make Love to You”, “If I Can’t Have You” and later became the duo “Betty & Dupree” on Kent Records while also recording on Chess due to the lack of money they were paid on Chess. Unfortunately, his role and importance wasn’t highlighted in the script of Cadillac Records.
In another instance, Cadillac insinuates Etta’s drug abuse stemming from her father issues. While Etta wondered much about the true identity of her father, most of her issues of rejection and insecurity stemmed from her mother, Dorothy, a single teenage mother who traveled in and out of Etta’s life like a bad storm. Though Etta had a mother figure in an older woman affectionately named Mama Lu, Etta’s life spiraled after her death. Between this internal tug of war and growing up in a business that didn’t cater much to a growing teenager, Etta’s life journey was surrounded by upheaval and survival. This self discovery wasn’t revealed until Etta checked into a program in the Tarzana Psychiatric Hospital.
“We talked about what it felt like being abandoned by a mother. He said I’d gotten all my moral values from Mama Lu, but I never knew a normal life….And then when Mama Lu died and Dorothy snatched me away, everything went haywire.”
While there was a number of other omissions such as the exclusion of Leonard Chess’s brother, co-founder and partner Phil Chess, the question still stands, why were these truths never told? Well, that’s a good question especially when Ms. James’s book was published in 1995, 13 years “before” the release of the movie, Cadillac Records. What is also in question is why writer/director, Darnell Martin would write the role of Etta James with Beyonce in mind as stated in the New York Times. Now if you’re looking for a name to sell movie tickets, I can definitely see the “follow the money” rationale. However when you fully inhale the intricacies of Ms. James’s defiant nature and understand the surrounding issues that followed her life and compare them to Beyonce’s persona and acting range, it just doesn’t scream a perfect match. Not saying I wasn’t pleased to see Beyonce’s commitment to the role written however that role was poorly written and watered down. As Etta so candidly stated to the New York Post’s Page Six in 2007, “she is going to have a hill to climb, because Etta James ain’t been no angel!”
So in conclusion, when I think of an artist who’s invested 58 years in writing and singing songs that come from the real chapters of her life, it seems only fitting that she have the honor of a real depiction. The life of Ms. Etta James is as fascinating as her voice, complicated as her vocal interpretations and raw as her passion. While Hollywood may try their best, her story is more brilliant and compelling than any writer could create. It is simply my hope to witness someone who will have the guts to really tell that story in the spirit Etta gave and deserves……..the truth!