The real sign that a rock-and-roll movie works is simple; how badly does it make you want to go to the record store when it's done? Cadillac Records, a big-screen version of the Chess Records story, works on that level -- but even beyond its hit list of great tunes from the days when the blues became rock and roll, it's anchored by strong performances, an unflinching honesty and a real sense of time and place, as Chicago's Chess Records turns its artists into stars with a mix of smart promotion, unethical behavior and killer instincts. Adrian Brody is Leonard Chess, a Chicago bar owner who turns a part interest in a record label into an empire; Jeffery Wright plays bluesman Muddy Waters, one of the first artists to benefit from Chess' smarts -- and one of the first artists to suffer from them, too.
Written and directed by Darnell Martin, Cadillac Records has all the earmarks of the musical history film -- the early years of struggle and poverty, the sudden rush of success as the teen hunger for a new sound explodes, the backbiting and finger-pointing as artists wonder where the money went; it even has narration, courtesy of bluesman Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer), looking back at how things began and how they went. But just because a movie follows a familiar framework doesn't mean it can't be well-made, or surprise us within that framework, and Cadillac Records succeeds in that regard, as Chess discovers, signs and breaks acts like label stalwarts Muddy Waters and Little Walter (Columbus Short), and then discovers Howlin' Wolf (Eamonn Walker), Chuck Berry (Mos Def) and Etta James (Beyonce Knowles), offering inspiration to fledgling garage bands like a young combo from England who've named themselves after one of Muddy's songs, The Rolling Stones. ...
The cast is terrific; Brody's always had a vaguely hangdog look to him that works here. Brody's characters are always going to let you down, Leonard Chess included, and the curse is that Leonard knows it. Wright is great as Waters, with some suggesting that the veteran actor (Casino Royale, W., and more) might finally earn an Oscar nomination; it's not a far-fetched idea, especially when you realize how well Wright conveys the loud, public side of Waters' life and the quieter private moments as stardom comes overnight and then slowly slinks away. Mos Def makes being Chuck Berry look like a lot of fun -- indeed, so much fun that it turns into trouble very, very quickly. Knowles doesn't quite look like Etta James, but as James sings in the studio -- with Leonard forcing her to tap into old memories to make a sad song sadder -- her big, brassy voice fits perfectly.
The Chess artists made history in the recording studio, and they also made plenty of mistakes outside of it. Martin strikes the right chord in these scenes, as the Chess artists screw up, screw around, and deal with the bizarre reality that Black music was becoming more and more popular in a racist society. A moment where, at a Chuck Berry concert, the dancing kids literally tear down the barriers dividing a segregated crowd is electric. Meanwhile, Leonard's doing what he can to keep his artists happy, even as that makes them unhappy; "take ten percent of Chuck's royalties and shift them over to Muddy," Leonard commands at one point. "Chuck won't notice." And he may not, at least for a while, but that doesn't make it right. (Walker's Howlin' Wolf is seen shunning all advances and demanding strict accounting -- a punk rocker decades before his time -- and Walker's performance manages to make moral principle cool, sexy and threatening.)
Cadillac Records works because it speaks to the essential contradictions of early pop music -- how fortunes were made but the people behind the music were often left behind; how artists who changed so many lives where challenged in changing their own; how there was joy and excitement behind sad songs of heartbreak and sadness and loss behind joyous, exuberant pieces of music. With great performances, a grown-up script and amazing music, Cadillac Records may not change your life, but there's an excellent chance it'll change your record collection, and for the better.
A TIP OF THE FRET TO RED DOG