Cadillac Records Movie Review (3 Stars)

Movie Review by Michael Phillips


Beyonce Knowles in Cadillac Records.
Beyonce Knowles in Cadillac Records

Fans of musical dramas may experience some deją vu while watching "Cadillac Records."

The story is remarkably similar to one told in the middle of 2006's "Dreamgirls," in a montage set to "Steppin' to the Bad Side."

There's the plucky upstart studio where African-American musicians are pioneering new kinds of music. There's the driven record-label owner who's dispensing payola to deejays, trying to buy his way past institutionalized racism and cross over from the R&B ghetto to the white-dominated pop charts.

There's the white group that steals a black musician's song and turns it into a hit single. There are lots of flashy new cars as symbols of success.

And above all, there's the music, the motivator and the moneymaker, the one thing that heals all wounds -- or at least in the case of the blues, expresses them.

In "Dreamgirls," the sequence is a flashy, fictionalized amalgam of events from the Motown era. In "Cadillac Records," it's straight-up history.

The film may also induce deją vu in longtime Chicago residents, because there's a chance they lived through these stories, when South Side brothers Leonard and Phil Chess relaunched Aristocrat as Chess Records and started releasing albums by the likes of Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Bo Diddley, Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker, Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin' Wolf, Chuck Berry and many more. "Cadillac Records" shrugs off Phil Chess and the label's early years in order to focus on Leonard, on some of the label's biggest personalities and on the music they made.

The story starts in Chicago in the 1940s, with Chess (Adrien Brody) as a young Polish immigrant promising his girlfriend's father that he'll transcend his poor origins: "Don't worry where I'm from, my wife's gonna drive a Cadillac."

That's the closest the film comes to explaining Chess' obsession with the cars, which he later dispenses to his successful recording artists like badges of honor. When Chess takes up with Muddy Waters (played with growling charisma by Jeffrey Wright, also recently seen as Colin Powell in "W." and James Bond's CIA buddy in "Quantum of Solace"), his label takes off, and he rapidly brings in talents such as Little Walter (Columbus Short), Berry (Mos Def), Howlin' Wolf (Eamonn Walker) and Etta James (executive producer Beyonce Knowles). But as the business comes together, his stars fall apart, sunk in various vices and deep-seated emotional issues. It's almost as though singing the blues isn't a cheery calling.

Those vices provide a bunch of riveting stories, including Berry's arrest under the Mann Act and Little Walter's public alcoholic meltdown. But they're presented as a series of disjointed anecdotes, bookended by overripe narration from Cedric The Entertainer as Willie Dixon. Writer-director Darnell Martin leaves a lot of key issues dangling, particularly about Chess' motives, and whether, as Waters repeatedly claims, he's cheating his artists. Oscar-winner Brody ("The Pianist") plays Chess as a guarded man who makes for a frail lead. He's a shadowy background figure uncomfortably placed at center stage.

Fortunately, that stage is crowded with broader, more intense characters who keep the energy level high.

In particular, Mos Def makes a terrific Berry, all flash and confidence, and Wright offers a memorably soulful take on Waters, whether he's strutting, singing, suffering or all three. Walker's Howlin' Wolf is a deep-throated, pride-filled bear of a man who dominates the screen.

Between them, they offer portraits that sometimes veer toward caricature but fill out the film almost as well as its rich soundtrack.

"Cadillac Records" could use more music and less mugging

Knowles' take on James in particular is only convincing when she's singing, which is fitting from a woman whose acting skills come in a distant second to her voice. But after every misstep, the film finds its feet again during the exhilarating, sweaty Chess studio sessions, where the film's cast covers songs from rock 'n' roll to electric blues to soul, from Waters' "I Can't Be Satisfied" to James' "At Last."

Just as in real life, no matter what else is going on in these musicians' lives, the music temporarily makes everything much better.



MPAA rating: R (for pervasive language and some sexuality).

Running time: 1:49.

Starring: Adrien Brody (Leonard Chess); Jeffrey Wright (Muddy Waters); Columbus Short (Little Walter); Mos Def (Chuck Berry); Beyonce Knowles (Etta James).

Directed and written by Darnell Martin; edited by Peter C. Frank; photographed by Anastas N. Michos; music by Terence Blanchard; production design by Linda Burton; produced by Andrew Lack and Sofia Sondervan. A Sony Pictures release.







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