"Cadillac Records" chronicles the rise of Leonard Chess' (Adrien Brody) Chess Records and its recording artists including Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), Little Walter (Columbus Short), Chuck Berry (Mos Def), Willie Dixon (Cedric The Entertainer) and the great Etta James (Beyonce Knowles). In this tale of sex, violence, race and rock and roll in Chicago of the 1950s and 60s, the film follows the exciting but turbulent lives of some of America's greatest musical legends.
An energized and passionate, if selective, telling of the story of Chess Records, Cadillac Records is a worthy entry in the niche genre of movies about rock and roll roots. Adrien Brody plays Leonard Chess, who started Chess Records in Chicago in 1947 and turned the label into an important force for blues, rhythm and blues, gospel and, in time, early rock and roll. Cadillac Records focuses on Chess' relationship with his first significant artist, Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), and the label's rise and expansion with the addition of such talents as Little Walter (Columbus Short), Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer), Howlin' Wolf (Eamonn Walker), Chuck Berry (Mos Def) and Etta James (Beyonce Knowles). Written and directed by Darnell Martin, Cadillac Records captures the scrappy beginnings of an enterprise, and a sound, inventing itself as it goes along. Particularly fun are scenes set in clubs or at Chess' recording facility, where electrified blues never stop pushing the envelope of creative possibility. All the while, danger lurks in shadows or in rivalries between artists; also in the self-destructive streaks of Walter and James, and the sexual fetishes of Berry. But the drama largely centers on the potent connections between all these people, who don't always know where their contribution to a cultural phenomenon is going. One of the film's delights is the way Chess and Waters don't really see rock coming until Berry steps through the door, fusing country music with blues. The film skips over a lot of facts: there's no sign of Leonard Chess' brother, Phil, who co-owned the company, nor is there much hint of Chess' expansion into a lot of other areas of music. None of that is any big deal. But what Cadillac Records is missing is more of a unifying point of view. The story is told as a recollection by Willie Dixon, but in a scattershot way that doesn't tell us who Leonard Chess or Waters really are. Aside from that, the film is well worth seeing. --Tom Keogh
Stills from Cadillac Records (click for larger image)