Cadillac Records

Cadillac Records movie poster
MPAA rating: R
Genre: Drama
A look at the evolution of Chess Records and the artists -- Etta James (Beyonce Knowles), Howlin' Wolf (Eamonn Walker), Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright) -- whose successful and turbulent careers were launched by the label.
Starring: Beyonce Knowles, Adrien Brody, Jeffrey Wright, Eamonn Walker, Mos Def, Cedric the Entertainer, Columbus Short, Gabrielle Union
Director: Darnell Martin
Running time: 1:48
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Editorial Review

The swirl of history energizes "Cadillac Records," the chronicle of the rise and fall of Chicago's legendary Chess Records, the 1950s music powerhouse that brought to prominence such stars as Muddy Waters, Etta James and Chuck Berry. It's a rousing, fast-paced tale, told with a modicum of verve and packed with colorfully flawed, occasionally heroic and even tragic characters.

It also feels disappointingly bloated and too fast-paced by half.

Cramming in that history doesn't leave much room for -- oh, I don't know -- story.

There's a teeny little hole in the middle of "Cadillac Records." It's right where you'll find Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody), the man around whom the film revolves.

A Jewish immigrant from Poland with a gifted ear for the blues, Chess was the co-founder of Chess Records. By championing the work of guitarist Waters (Jeffrey Wright), singer James (Beyonc Knowles), harmonica player Little Walter (Columbus Short), growling vocalist Howlin' Wolf (Eamonn Walker), the duckwalking Berry (Mos Def) and others, he created previously unheard-of opportunities for African American artists.

The movie also makes clear that he was no saint, shuffling royalty payments from one musician to another at times and enriching himself while some of his artists went hungry.

But we're never given much insight into who Chess really is, what makes him tick or why we should care about him.

To the extent that we see a real person, it's largely through his relationship with James, which the film depicts as part unrequited romance and part power struggle between a strong-willed, if emotionally damaged, woman and her sugar daddy. It's the most fully fleshed connection between any two characters in the film, yet it's given short shrift.

History is propelled forward by the filmmaker's over-reliance on such now-stale staples of musical biopics as the montage of nightclub marquees, ka-ching-ing cash registers, close-ups zooming in on the names of chart-topping singles and newspaper headlines.

It's a breathless approach, leaving little time in this speeding, noisy, overcrowded "Cadillac" to take in anything other than the milestones that go whizzing past.

-- Michael O'Sullivan (Dec. 5, 2008)

Contains profanity, racial epithets, sex scenes, partial nudity, violence and alcohol and drug abuse.