Cadillac Records

Movie Information

The Story: The rise and eventual fall of pioneering American rock-n-roll label Chess Records. The Lowdown: A fairly standard biographical film that is nearly lifted to something more solely by virtue of the film’s first-rate cast.
Score:

Genre: Musical Biopic
Director: Darnell Martin
Starring: Adrien Brody, Jeffrey Wright, Gabrielle Union, Columbus Short, Cedric the Entertainer, Mos Def
Rated: R

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.

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7 thoughts on “Cadillac Records

  1. Louis

    Nice review, overall.

    Thanks to a little help from a friend(s), I saw this this weekend.

    It is worth pointing out — given the subject’s relative obscurity — that this is the second movie dealing with the subject of Chess Records this year; the other being WHO DO YOU LOVE, in which Phil Chess is the lead character.

    And, last but not least, it should be noted that in the year of President-elect Obama, this movie is helmed by a competent — though flawed — female black writer-director, in Darnell Martin.

    Without doing a search first, I defy anyone to name another American movie directed by a black woman. Yes, of course, such movies exist, but not with such strong acting talent and mainstream studio backing. The significance of this milestone shouldn’t be overlooked as the “struggles” of black filmmakers certainly parallel those of the black musicians the movie depicts.

    This is a noble effort by Martin, but it’s obvious that she wasn’t able to get a grip around the subject’s massive canvas. The movie is all over the place. And, to my astonishment, it doesn’t really put out front and center what on paper it has going most for it: The music. Does the typical moviegoer even know who Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, etc. are and what their contribution was to American popular music? The movie doesn’t do anything to bring the initiated demographic into the fold, so to speak.

    The casting overall was good — though even that has one central flaw: Cedric the Entertainer is miscast BIGTIME as Willie Dixon and his narration is heavy-handed beyond belief. As mentioned, Mos Def is definitely underused as the enigmatic
    conman Chuck Berry.

    And, oh yeah, blues and early rock ‘n’ roll musicians were not smoking cigarettes with filters in the early ‘50s. Yet, they are in this movie.

  2. Justin Souther

    Without doing a search first, I defy anyone to name another American movie directed by a black woman.

    The only one I can think of off the top of my head is Kassi Lemmons, who directed last years Talk to Me, another movie with an very, very strong cast, one I’m like more than Cadillac Records.

    And, oh yeah, blues and early rock ‘n’ roll musicians were not smoking cigarettes with filters in the early ‘50s. Yet, they are in this movie.

    Oddly enough (and if I remember correct) the same thing happens in Miracle at St. Anna.

  3. Louis

    The only one I can think of off the top of my head is Kassi Lemmons, who directed last years Talk to Me

    Very good…

    But you get my point, right?

  4. Ken Hanke

    And, oh yeah, blues and early rock ‘n’ roll musicians were not smoking cigarettes with filters in the early ‘50s. Yet, they are in this movie.

    This is the kind of small anachronism that can distract attentive viewers. I got a twinge of “uh…no” when I first watched Milk and spotted boxes of Kodak film that didn’t exist at the time in Harvey’s camera shop.

  5. Ken Hanke

    But you get my point, right?

    There aren’t that many women directors period, come to that. I haven’t watched Cadillac Records yet, so I can’t weigh in on its actual quality. However, Lemmons’ work on Talk to Me was very strong. After Across the Universe and Titus (I saw them out of order), I’m inclined to think Julie Taymor is the first truly great female filmmaker. (I blame this on the system, not a lack of talented women.) The unfortunate thing about all this is who is getting the most press in this area — Catherine Hardwicke who made the execrable Twilight. And simply because her film made a lot of money.

  6. Justin Souther

    But you get my point, right?

    I do, and it’s probably worth noting that both of these women have made good movies.

  7. Piffy!

    “And, oh yeah, blues and early rock ‘n’ roll musicians were not smoking cigarettes with filters in the early ‘50s. Yet, they are in this movie.

    This is the kind of small anachronism that can distract attentive viewers. I got a twinge of “uh…no” when I first watched Milk and spotted boxes of Kodak film that didn’t exist at the time in Harvey’s camera shop. ”

    Dont they have people payed specifically to notice these things? Seems kinda silly to miss em.

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