Rating: 3 stars
Cadillac Records, about the trailblazing black blues musicians of 1950s Chicago and the Jewish white man who supported—and possibly exploited—them, is almost great.
It sure gets the music right—it’ll have you stomping your feet and howling along with the blues and early rock classics.
And it casts some great actors to depict these musical legends. Jeffrey Wright is Muddy Waters, the Mississippi sharecropper whose talent at bedding women was almost as great as talent on the guitar. Mos Def is the cocky, cheeky Chuck Berry, who knew he was the best and watched with bitter cynicism as white boys like the Beach Boys stole his riffs. Beyonce Knowles is Etta James, a junkie torch singer with a daddy complex. And Columbus Short is Little Walter, the gifted harmonica player with a hair-trigger temper.
Adrien Brody plays Leonard Chess, the likeable, self-made record executive who paid his talent in shiny new Cadillacs. But the film is ambivilant about Chess’s true nature. Does he genuinely care for his musicians? Or is he a musical parasite? Chess continues to pay Muddy Waters ever after the blues have gone out of fashion and later, he seems to develop romantic feelings for Etta James. But while he has gotten rich, his musicians suffer. Is this simply the way the system was set up? The film combines sentimental affection for Chess with a hint of accusation. It needs to make up its mind.
Another problem: The film can’t avoid music biopic cliches—the mind blowing solo at a café; the bar fights; the perfect take in the studio; the talent immolating itself. Indeed, it seems at times like several biopics thrown into a blender—let’s call it Lady Ray Sings The Line. It’s a survey film of sorts and everyone gets short shrift. Both Chess and Waters have put-upon wives, but we don’t get to know them very well. (Gabrielle Union has a few juicy scenes as Muddy’s loyal lady; but Emmanuele Chriqui is a non-entity as Revetta Chess.) We want to see more of Mos Def’s Chuck Berry and even Eamonn Walker as the snarly, imposing Howling Wolf, a man whose righteous anger comes through in every growling note.
Still, director Darnell Martin keeps the music percolating and lets her actors shine, making Cadillac Records an enjoyable, if slightly unsatisfying, time at the movies.