I have a hunch my complaints about Cadillac Records might be, paradoxically, why the movie works. I can’t decide if they’re legitimate or if I’m just faulting the movie for trying to do things differently.
It’s not a traditional biopic, first of all. Unlike Walk the Line and Ray, Cadillac Records is a menagerie of many different musicians at the forefront of the blues era, which paved the way for rock and roll as we know it. At the forefront there’s Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody), the white, Jewish owner of Chess Records in Chicago, and his first discovery, Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright). Then there’s Little Walter (Columbus Short), Etta James (Beyonce Knowles), Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker), and Chuck Berry (Mos Def), as well as songwriter Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer).
Some of those names sounds unfamiliar to you? The Rolling Stones named their band after a Muddy Waters song. The Beach Boys took the entire melody of “Surfin’ USA” from a Chuck Berry song. Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” was a rip-off of Muddy Waters’ song “You Need Love,” written by Willie Dixon. These details make Cadillac Records often fascinating.
On the other hand, the film is overloaded and unpolished, and first-time writer/director Darnell Martin’s pacing is not very smooth. When Chess is first putting all his money into the record label, his wife accuses him of “gambling our future,” but there’s no follow-up to that, no payoff: later in the movie, after we’ve forgotten that moment, we briefly notice they’re now living in a mansion. There are a lot of little things like that; the dots of the plot are there, but Martin rarely connects them adequately.
Saying some of the characters are unlikable is an understatement. Little Walter, Waters’ protégé, was apparently a drunken psychotic murderer. Muddy Waters was a serial cheater who treated his loyal wife (Gabrielle Union) like crap. They’re the two with the most screen time, which is a little unfortunate; I wish they had made more room for Chuck Berry (who is painted as the cleanest of everyone, ironic since he’s the only one who did jail time, for transporting an underage white girl across state lines). All the actors are spot-on in their portrayals, but Def’s Berry is by far the most fun.
The film’s take on Chess himself is complicated. It wants to portray him positively, as a guy who wouldn’t screw anybody over, but it can’t decide how honest to be about some of his shadier business dealings. In reality, he stole far more than his share of his musicians’ royalties, and the Cadillacs he bought for his clients were paid with their own money.
Then again, in reality, he also had a brother who created Chess Records with
him. The movie omits him entirely.
Beyonce Knowles, by the way, only appears in the second hour, but she delivers. Her acting has always been adequate, but here she reveals a talent and a passion that could really turn her into a major actress. And the covers of Etta James’ songs that she performs (“At Last,” “I’d Rather Go Blind,” “All I Could Do was Cry”) are terrific.
So what we have here is a messy, overloaded, unconventional period piece that portrays many of its characters in a negative light. It also has a ton of great music (in addition to Knowles, Wright, Def, Short, and Walker all sing their own songs) and great performances across the board. Could all the raw talent and entertainment and extended musical sequences on display have survived in a leaner, more polished, better-structured film? Well, possibly. But I’ll take it this way, too.
Movie Grade: B+
The rise and fall of Chess Records, which launched the careers of Muddy Waters, Etta James and Chuck Berry.