Whilst hanging out on the set of Nimród Antal’s Armored today (a nifty-looking heist flick due for a probable ’08 release from Screen Gems), I got the opportunity to chat with Columbus Short (star of Stomp the Yard and the lone black writer on Studio 60), who was wandering about the set blowing on a harmonica in between takes. What might’ve seemed strange to some made perfect sense to me: one of the reasons I was eager to visit the set today (besides watching the very talented Antal do his thing) was to talk Little Walter and Cadillac Records with the up-and-coming Mr. Short.
Written and directed by Darnell Martin, Cadillac Records is actually the story of Chess Records, the label (named after its founder, Leonard Chess) that transformed American pop culture by disseminating the rough and tumble and thoroughly brilliant music of giants like Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Chuck Berry and Little Walter. For those unfamiliar with the history, Little Walter’s story is the most tragic: a harmonica-playing legend before the age of twenty (backing Muddy Waters on such classic tracks as “Hoochie Coochie Man” and “Mannish Boy”), Walter got hooked on booze and, later, heroin before succumbing to various maladies and a lot of hard livin’ in 1968. He was gone far too soon, but every time you hear any blues, folk or rock musician playing the harmonica, somewhere in there, you’re hearing Little Walter.
Up until now, it was unclear as to how Martin planned to tell the story of Chess Records. Would it be told through Leonard or through one (or more) of the musicians. According to Short, it’s going to be both: “It’s basically Jeffrey [Wright, as Muddy Waters], Adrien [Brody, as Leonard Chess] and myself. And then Beyonce [Knowles, as Etta James]. And Cedric [The Entertainer, as Willie Dixon] is kind of the narrator of it all.”
Short then went on to say that he’ll begin fasting this Saturday to prepare for the part of Little Walter – which is interesting since he’s got two weeks of heavy duty action scenes left on Armored (he allows that he “might pass out in between takes”). He also confirmed that Mos Def has been cast, though he didn’t specify whether he’s playing Chuck Berry or one of the label’s other monumental musicians.
Cadillac Records is Darnell Martin’s first theatrical feature since 2001’s Prison Song and, amazingly, only her second since making his debut with the critically adored I Like It Like That all the way back in 1994. Martin’s done a lot of television in the interim, but does she still have the chops to make a proper movie out of this incredibly promising material? We’ll soon see.