"Cadillac Records"

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 5, 2008

The swirl of history -- and history-making music -- 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, Little Walter, Howlin' Wolf and Chuck Berry. It's a rousing, fast-paced tale, told with a modicum of verve and packed with colorfully flawed, occasionally heroic, even tragic characters.

It also feels disappointingly bloated and too fast-paced by half. It's an LP record played at 45 rpm. (If you don't know what that means, ask your parents.)

Cramming in that history doesn't leave much room for -- oh, I don't know -- story. Narrated by Cedric the Entertainer (in the persona of Chess Records songwriter, session musician and producer Willie Dixon) and set against the backdrop of the civil rights struggle, it feels at times like it would have been better as a seven-hour Ken Burns documentary than as a feature film.

Although that's certainly not for any lack of drama.

Correction: Make that melodrama. Inter-band rivalry, sexual infidelity, legal troubles, accounting irregularities, drugs, demon whiskey and the waving of guns make for an experience full of sound and fury. In the end, though, despite a cast of thousands -- okay, dozens -- it is ultimately an empty one.

That's because there's a teeny little hole in the middle of "Cadillac Records." It's 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 American black vernacular music known as the blues, Chess was, with his brother Phil, co-founder of Chess Records. He's also, at least in writer-director Darnell Martin's telling, something of a cipher. By championing the work of guitarist Waters (Jeffrey Wright), singer James (Beyoncé 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.

But the movie also makes clear that he was no saint, shuffling royalty payments from one musician to another at times -- as when Berry is jailed for transporting a minor across state lines -- and enriching himself while some of his artists go hungry. The film takes its name from Chess's practice of handing out Cadillac cars to his hitmakers, instead of paychecks.

But we're never given much insight into who Chess really is, what makes him tick or why we should care about him, other than by virtue of his paternalistic patronage of the downtrodden.

To the extent that we do 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.

Too much ground to cover, after all.

Let's see. There's Waters's jump from acoustic to electric guitar -- depicted in a post-coital flash of lightning-like insight, courtesy of a sexual conquest with an extension cord. Then there's the death of Little Walter's mother, precipitating his steep descent into alcoholism and self-destructive behavior. Next, the invasion of the British bluesmen, shown in a fleeting sequence featuring mop-topped actors impersonating the early Rolling Stones. Oh, and there's the complete integration of the races, which can apparently be traced to a single Chuck Berry concert. "That's all it took to bring us all together," intones narrator Dixon, "one man duckwalking across the stage."


And yet history rolls on, propelled forward by the filmmaker's overreliance on such now-stale staples of musical biopics as the montage of nightclub marquees, jukeboxes and ka-ching-ing cash registers, along with the requisite close-ups zooming in on the titles of chart-topping singles and newspaper headlines. Cue the next song for the soundtrack album.

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.

Cadillac Records (109 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for profanity, racial epithets, sex scenes, partial nudity, violence and alcohol and drug abuse.

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