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Cadillac Records

A Music Biopic That Soars

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

Bring up Chess Records to blues fans and Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, and Etta James are bound to come up. With an ear and eye for talent and shrewd business skills, Leonard and Phil Chess and the talented musicians, songwriters, and singers they signed to their record label, enjoyed commercial and critical success. In Cadillac Records, writer-director Darnell Martin (I Like It Like That), explores the complex, conflicting, contradictory relationships between Leonard Chess (Phil barely makes an appearance) and the musical artists he promoted and produced during Chess Records’ heyday almost half a century ago.

While Cadillac Records centers on a twenty-year period, from the founding of Chess Records in 1950 to its dissolution in 1969, it focuses on the professional and personal relationship between Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody), a Polish-Jewish immigrant, and Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), the blues great Chess signed to Chess Records in the early 1950s. Waters, a Mississippi transplant who honed his songwriting and performing skills as a street singer and the leader of a club band, gains almost instant success when Chess takes records one of his songs.

After the song tops the R&B charts, Leonard rewards Waters with a Cadillac. Awarding Cadillacs to star performers, sometimes in lieu of royalty payments, quickly becomes a Chess tradition. Another musician, Little Walter (Columbus Short), Waters’ ace harmonica player, gets a hit of his own, but becomes hooked on alcohol and drugs.

As the years go by, other artists join Chess Records, including Howlin' Wolf (Eamonn Walker), another blues singer-songwriter who becomes Waters’ natural rival, Chuck Berry (Mos Def), the country-western influenced R&B singer-songwriter credited with “crossing over” into the pop mainstream and influencing the development of rock-n-roll, Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer), a session musician and songwriter, and finally, Etta James (Beyoncé Knowles), who enters Leonard’s professional life when, with Berry’s arrest and imprisonment for violating the Mann Act (i.e., illegally transporting underage girls across state lines), he needs a hit the most. Like Little Walter, James’ emotional stability and mental fragility becomes an ongoing issue and like Little Walter, drug abuse and addiction become problems (but thankfully, with less tragic results).

Martin uses the Willie Dixon character to narrate events from far in the future (i.e., the early 1990s) to frame the events in Cadillac Records. It’s an awkward, unnecessary device, one that seems to add nothing except the obligatory music biopic nostalgia. With, however, Chess’ relationship with Waters and, later, with James, Martin has more than enough material to carry her (and us) through to the end credits. The musical montages help too, of course. Martin gives Chess a welcome complexity, as she does Waters and James.

Chess is motivated by the desire for financial and professional success, but he also, naively or shrewdly, sees the artists as members of an extended family. While Martin treats Chess’ benevolent paternalism sympathetically, she also acknowledges the conflicts, primarily over money, but also over status and respect, this approach and attitude brought into Chess’ personal and professional relationships.

Working from a presumably modest budget (e.g., establishing shots are few and far between, as are the usual elements used to mark the passage of time), Martin relies on the musical performances (some, like Wright and Knowles’, done in-studio) and music-themed montages to connect the various time periods. She also relies heavily on her actors to add nuance and depth to what could have been one-dimensional characters due to the limited screen time each one gets.

Luckily, Martin chose and directed her actors well. There’s not a single misplaced note (sorry, couldn’t resist) in any of the performances, both major and minor. Add to that Martin’s selection of blues standards and Cadillac Records ends up as the rare period-music drama that manages to transcend its familiar storyline to become greater than the sum of its musical (and non-musical) parts.