Cadillac Records (2008) / Drama-Musical
MPAA Rated: R for pervasive language and some sexuality
Running time: 109 min
Cast: Adrien Brody, Jeffrey Wright, Columbus Short, Mos Def, Beyonce Knowles, Gabrielle Union, Eamonn Walker, Cedric the Entertainer, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Eric Bogosian
Director: Darnell Martin
Screenplay: Darnell Martin
Review published December 21, 2008
The story of Chess Records, the Chicago-based record label that pushed forward several notable acts important to Rhythm & Blues, and the precursor to Rock n Roll. Cedric the Entertainer (Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, Code Name: The Cleaner) narrates as songwriter and bass player Willie Dixon, but Adrien Brody (Hollywoodland, King Kong) gets the starring nod as Chess Records founder Leonard Chess, a Polish immigrant nightclub owner who starts his own independent record label label. The story starts off in the 1940s, where a brilliant but unknown guitarist who would come to be known as Muddy Waters (Wright, W.) was discovered on a Mississippi plantation.
Waters and Chess meet, and music history is forged, as Chess manages him, providing the material goods Waters never had before, but also keeping the entirety of the profits under wraps. Payola is delivered to DJs to get the records played on the radio, and soon, the business takes off, making a star out of the "race record" artists who eventually would cross over to be played on white stations, especially as such acts as Etta James (Knowles, Dreamgirls) and Chuck Berry (Mos Def, Be Kind Rewind) also signed on.
Veteran television director Darnell Martin (Their Eyes Were Watching God, Prison Song) also takes up the writing chores to widely mixed results. Many of the problems with the film stem from the story arc itself, which paradoxically gives too much time to certain acts on the Chess label, yet at 109 minutes, not nearly enough to any one of them. Instead, we have a soap opera covering several years, with only the juiciest, sexiest moments coming into play. We get glimpses into the personalities of the real-life figures portrayed, but still learn only a small fraction about them and what motivated them to be the superstars they became. Doesn't Muddy Waters deserve his own film? Etta James? Chuck Berry? Surely, we deserve more than 30 minutes with them, and certainly much more than a few hit songs and their various affairs. We come away knowing barely more than the subject of the film, the record empire started by Leonard Chess, than we could have gotten just taking a few minutes to read the Wikipedia page.
Of course, that Wikipedia page is likely to give you a much more complete picture, as Martin takes great shortcuts with the material, and makes up a good deal of the rest. For instance, Leonard founded Chess records with his brother Phil, who is curiously left out of the film completely. Leonard is shown as never really paying his performers their royalties except in gifts, and though it is treated as a rather benign act on his part (he would give his artists Cadillacs in place of money), the reasons why aren't made very clear. Many musical acts that were profitable or influential are never dealt with (Bo Diddley, John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy, etc.)
The music itself is a mixed bag. Not the original music, which is timeless and legendary, but the interpretations by the collections of actors that inhabit the film. Beyoncé's voice is silky and beautiful, but never transcends into anything more than a lesser version of Etta James, and it always appears to be lip-synched rather than organic whenever she is shown in the recording studio. First time studio takes sound like polished material primed for single release. Mos Def's nasal take on Chuck Berry is about as far off from his rich and classic sound as can be and yet still be considered acceptable; it sounds like the amateur karaoke version.
If Cadillac Records finds a groove in anything, it's in the quality performances of Wright as Muddy Waters and Columbus Short (Accepted, Stomp the Yard) as Little Walter, two semi-tragic figures that are given just the right amount of troubled-soul deliveries to add a needed complexity. Unfortunately, while we do understand that their quest for attention and adulation stems from their own character flaws, we aren't given but the briefest of inklings as to what motivates them to dive headfirst into their vices. As fine as their performances are, many other players aren't much more than adequate. Beyoncé and Mos Def offer oodles of charisma, but little emotional depth, and Brody, perhaps the most seasoned actor of the bunch, isn't able to deliver in a role that, while on the screen more than any other character, still feels largely underwritten.
Cadillac Records plays like a condensed soap opera of music lore than a full-fledged story, and as a result, is only of mild interest to those who enjoy the music of the era, or the stars of the film. Historically inaccurate, highly sensationalized, and with forced situations and sometimes laughable dialogue (this may be the most times I've heard the words "mother fu**er" since Richard Pryor's stand-up routines), the material never rises out of mediocrity to inspire thought or nostalgia. When the covers of the classic tunes are a far cry from their originals, it's hard not to call the film a failure as a music biopic. Had the film focused on any one of the film's worthy main characters with stronger emphasis, we might find just the right amount of rooting interest to actually care. By trying to jam as many of them in and cover at least a dozen different social or personal problems, Cadillac Records suffers from having, as Chuck Berry sang so well (when not covered by Mos Def), "No Particular Place to Go."
©2008 Vince Leo