"Cadillac Records" is a fun, fast, flashy introduction to the world of Chess Records. In the 1950s, Leonard Chess, a Polish-born Jew in Chicago, along with his brother Phil (not seen in this film) produced "race" records by African American blues and rock and roll legends like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Chuck Berry and Etta James.
These artists' work had huge impact on popular music; the Rolling Stones are shown on a pilgrimage to Chess Studio. Their music is great and is played all but non-stop on the soundtrack, which is a very good thing. Flashy glimpses into the glamorous styles of the 1950s and 60s include loving looks at the many Cadillacs Chess gives as gifts to his star performers.
Jeffrey Wright is quietly compelling as Muddy Waters. Mos Def is a charming Chuck Berry; he really communicates the charisma that Berry exuded to his adoring female fans. Eamonn Walker is terrific, and appropriately intimidating, as Howlin' Wolf. Walker electrifies the screen with his every morsel of screen time; I wish that after they'd finished "Cadillac Records," they had just kept the sets up and kept the cameras running and began a biography of Howlin' Wolf with Walker in the lead. Beyonce Knowles is very beautiful and pays worthy tribute to Etta James, the singer she plays.
"Cadillac Records" feels a bit rushed, and not as deep and probing as it could have been. Perhaps much backstory was cut out? A shame, because Adrien Brody, a brilliant and compelling actor, is not given enough to do.
So much more could and should have been said about Chess the man and his motivations, and the complex relationship he had with his singers. There is the story that Chess put Muddy Waters to work painting his ceiling. Some accused him of paternalism; curious viewers are advised to pick up Nadine Cohodas' book "Spinning Blues into Gold: The Chess Brothers and the Legendary Chess Records." Also, "Cadillac Records" can't avoid the clichés inherent in music biopics: the innocent character is introduced to drugs for the first time, and is ruined by them; the self destructiveness of brilliant people, the exhilarating, brutal, rags-to-riches-to-obscurity trajectory of show biz careers. For all that, "Cadillac Records" is fun and it makes you want to learn more about an important cultural moment in American history.
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