Approaching the blues with the enthusiasm of an overcaffeinated brass band, helmer Darnell Martin nonetheless makes some kind of music with the percolating ’50s biopic “Cadillac Records” — mostly because she mines a righteous, mythic sensibility out of the story of Leonard Chess, Muddy Waters and the birth of the Chicago blues. Jeffrey Wright’s Waters is unforgettable, Eamonn Walker gives an unnerving performance as rival bluesman Howlin’ Wolf, and Beyonce Knowles’ Etta James should put bottoms in seats.
The second feature this year to focus on the same musicians, “Cadillac Records” takes a far broader approach than Jerry Zaks’ “Who Do You Love,”‘ which concentrated more on the conflicted character of Chess than on the artists he hired, promoted, profited from and, some say, exploited. In “Cadillac Records,” Adrien Brody cuts an appropriately oily figure as the man who founded Chess Records in 1956, while Wright delivers a performance of eloquent, simmering dignity as Waters — the first Chess star, one of the great vocalists in American music and the dramatic engine of Martin’s film.
Working off her own well-researched screenplay, Martin goes so far as to have Chess’ path crossed by shadowy, muttering figures. “I’ve lost daughters to bluesmen,” they warn him outside the black nightclub he plans to open. “It’s a dangerous business you in.” No kidding: At the Club Macambo, where Chess starts booking local talent, the so-called Headhunters barge in — Waters, harmonica virtuoso Little Walter (Columbus Short) and guitarist Jimmy Rogers (Kevin Mambo). They take over the stage, fists are thrown and someone pulls a gun. Chess does the smart, politic thing and hires the invaders.
He also starts recording Waters, whose “I Can’t Be Satisfied” puts them all on the map. Bookending narration provided by Cedric the Entertainer, seriously miscast as the great songwriter Willie Dixon, tells the story of Chess’ expansion, his paying off of disc jockeys, his fostering of the unstable Little Walter, Waters’ marriage to steady, long-suffering Geneva Wade (Gabrielle Union), the clash between Waters and Howlin’ Wolf (by all accounts one of the most ferocious blues performers ever — and Walker makes you believe it), and the eventual signing of the troubled James (Knowles), whose “At Last” becomes one of the label’s real crossover hits.
One suspects Martin is a convert, one who might have come to the blues unconvinced but came away a fire-and-brimstone evangelist for the music and its people — which is good, because an overfamiliarity with the minutiae might have strangled what is, on a very basic level, a solid story. Most of the details are right-on in “Cadillac Records,” though the director’s efforts to sell it sometimes steers the film into mawkish or hokey territory.
Where it’s dead serious, though, is as a racial parable that couldn’t be timelier. Chess Records was a mixed marriage — the owner was a Polish immigrant, his artists were African-American, and much of the America they inhabited was hostile to any such arrangement. This all comes to a head after Chess signs Chuck Berry (a dryly funny Mos Def), whose hybridized pop sound had some promoters thinking he was a white country singer.
Berry is the guy who puts Chess over the top; as someone says, they’re not sure what he’s playing, but it’s not the blues. But it sells, and it bridges the racial divide: In a scene duplicated in “Who Do You Love,” the velvet ropes separating whites and blacks at a Berry concert are toppled by the audience. That Martin later has Knowles reprise the entire racial psychology of America through James and her seemingly insoluble identity problems, by contrast, is overkill; Knowles gives a soulful portrayal, but her part of the movie seems to exist in another dimension entirely.
As Waters’ self-destructive protege, Short brings blood and soul to a classic role — a kind of prince of the blues who eventually becomes torn over whether to revere the king or dethrone him.
The music — most of it performed by the actors themselves — has a real richness to it, if not quite the muscle of the Chess records themselves. Recording sessions are shot like live concerts; the club gigs feel sweaty and smoky. And Def’s Berry performances succeed in capturing what it felt like when the blues had a baby and they named it rock ‘n’ roll.