×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Cadillac Records

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.

With:
Leonard Chess - Adrien Brody Muddy Waters - Jeffrey Wright Geneva Wade - Gabrielle Union Little Walter - Columbus Short Willie Dixon - Cedric the Entertainer Revetta Chess - Emmanuelle Chriqui Howlin' Wolf - Eamonn Walker Chuck Berry - Mos Def Etta James - Beyonce Knowles

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.

Popular on Variety

Cadillac Records

Production: A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Sony Music Film and Parkwood Pictures presentation of a Sony Music Film production. Produced by Andrew Lack, Sofia Sondervan. Executive producers, Beyonce Knowles, Marc Levin. Co-producer, Petra Hoebel. Directed, written by Darnell Martin.

Crew: Camera (color), Anastas Michos; editor, Peter C. Frank; music, Terence Blanchard; music supervisor, Beth Amy Rosenblatt; executive music producer, Marshall Chess; music producer, Syeve Jordan; production designer, Linda Burton; art director, Nick Locke; set decorator, David Schlesinger; costume designer, Johnetta Boone; sound (Dolby Digital), Jeff Pullman, Stuart Deutsch; visual effects supervisor, Robert Lopuski; stunt coordinator, Stephen Pope; assistant director, Jonathan Starch; casting, Kimberly R. Hardin, Michelle D. Adams. Reviewed at Wilshire screening room, Beverly Hills, Nov. 18, 2008. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 108 MIN.

Cast: Leonard Chess - Adrien Brody Muddy Waters - Jeffrey Wright Geneva Wade - Gabrielle Union Little Walter - Columbus Short Willie Dixon - Cedric the Entertainer Revetta Chess - Emmanuelle Chriqui Howlin' Wolf - Eamonn Walker Chuck Berry - Mos Def Etta James - Beyonce KnowlesWith: Kevin Mambo.

More Scene

  • Rami Malek, Robert Pattinson and John

    Robert Pattinson Praises Fans for Raising Funds for Go Campaign: ‘It’s So Sweet’

    Robert Pattinson is giving back, but he’s even more impressed that his friends and fans are joining him in the fight. “It’s amazing,” Pattinson told Variety on the black carpet outside Neuehouse in Hollywood at the Go Campaign’s annual gala. “And they’ve done it every year. It’s kind of — it’s so sweet and I [...]

  • Leonardo DiCaprio, Martin Scorsese, Al PacinoKirk

    Martin Scorsese Saluted by Leonardo DiCaprio, Al Pacino at Santa Barbara Film Fest Gala

    Leonardo DiCaprio and Al Pacino saluted Martin Scorsese‘s dedication and risk-taking at his Santa Barbara International Film Festival tribute, while the filmmaker spoke about the importance of “individual artistic expression.” More than 300 people attended the black-tie gala on Thursday night in Scorsese’s honor at the Ritz-Carlton Bacara in Santa Barbara, where festival exec director [...]

  • DOLEMITE IS MY NAME!, 2019, DOL_Unit_06284.RAF

    'Dolemite Is My Name' Writer Larry Karaszewski Recalls 10-Year Journey to Make Rudy Ray Moore Biopic

    “Harriet” writer-director Kasi Lemmons was in a reflective mood at Tuesday night’s “Behind the Screen” event at the Formosa Cafe in West Hollywood, sponsored by the Writers Guild of America West. The biopic, starring Cynthia Erivo as slave-turned-abolitionist Harriet Tubman, has been receiving buzz since its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. It’s Lemmons’ [...]

  • Taika Waititi and Roman Griffin Davis

    Holocaust Experts Debate 'Jojo Rabbit' at Museum of Tolerance Screening

    With its comedic, cartoonish portrayal of Nazis, Taika Waititi’s satirical Hitler youth tale “Jojo Rabbit” has polarized critics and audiences alike. And that division continued to be stirred at Tuesday night’s screening of the film at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, where Liebe Geft, director of the museum, moderated a heated panel discussion [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content