As far as biographies are concerned, Cadillac Records—at least in the hands of writer and director Darnell Martin—has it all: violence, alcoholism, racial tension, heroin overdoses, womanizing. Name a genre trope and this picture likely has it. And while it certainly makes for an interesting story, it’s also one of the reasons Cadillac Records falls short, since there’s a vague sense of the clichéd that runs throughout the film.
However, what keeps Cadillac Records engaging isn’t its plot, but rather its ace casting. Led by Jeffrey Wright, Adrien Brody and an underused Mos Def, there isn’t a bad performance in the entire movie. It’s Martin’s ensemble cast that keeps everything moving and entertaining, even at times when the movie may seem like old hat.
A primer on the early history of rock music, Cadillac Records tells the story of the ascension of Chicago’s Chess Records, as well as its eventual decline, namely through the relationship of founder Leonard Chess (Brody), the son of Polish Jewish immigrants, and Muddy Waters (Wright), a former sharecropper turned musician. (Leonard’s brother Phil, co-founder of Chess, is oddly left out). It’s a story about money, power and status (as embodied by the Cadillac), and ultimately corruption, but also, to a lesser extent, a story of the struggles of black musicians and the larger fame of the white musicians they eventually influenced.
Even though Martin covers a good three decades of music history—featuring musicians like Chuck Berry (Mos Def), Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker, Lord of War) and Etta James (Beyonce Knowles)—she keeps things moving at a quick pace. She occasionally—and wisely—sketches in what could’ve potentially been minutiae and instead goes for the meat of Chess Records’ back story. The only drawback is that this approach too often ends up feeling like anecdotes of drunken exploits and amoral decadence culled from an episode of Behind the Music than actual plot.
But this isn’t too much of a drawback, since for someone who’s spent the biggest chunk of her career working in television, Martin at least understands how a movie is supposed to move about and feel. Plus, she’s working with a group of professionals who understand that this type of movie—one steeped in downfall and tragedy—doesn’t need to devolve into breast-beating and Oscar-baiting.
With the Christmas rush and the Oscar push bringing a lot of fine (and would-be fine) films to town, there’s a good chance Cadillac Records will be ignored. It’s not essential viewing, but it’s a classy piece of filmmaking with a string of great performances and should at least be a consideration for any music fan. Rated R for pervasive language and some sexuality.