Helmer Darnell Martin makes music with the percolating and scintillating ’50s biopic Cadillac Records mostly because of the rich, righteous and mythic sensibility out of the story of Leonard Chess, Muddy Waters and the birth of the Chicago blues.
For those unfamiliar with the story of Chess Records, the main crux is between Leonard Chess,played by Adrien Brody, and Muddy Waters, brilliantly played by Jeffrey Wright. The duo’s relationship provides the back story to the legacy of the Chicago record label. This is the second film dealing with the same artists, yet Cadillac Records takes a far broader approach than Jerry Saks Who Do You Love.
Brody does a bang-up job as the man who founded Chess Records and compliments Wright’s simmering dignity and eloquent performance. Martin does a great job of establishing the foundation of what blues meant to those all across the U.S. during the 1950s. The cast was well-assembled and did a great job of blending up into their roles. Columbus Short (Stomp The Yard) becomes Little Walter – the only Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Famer to be inducted for his work as a harmonica player.
But it’s with the story that things get convoluted. Chess and Waters relationship becomes strained the more money gets involved the more successful Chess Records becomes. New additions such as Chester “Howlin’ Wolf” Burnett – powerfully played by Eamonn Walker, Chuck Berry (Mos Def) and Etta James (Beyonce Knowles) make-up the blueprint of black music that Motown and more recent labels like Roc-A-Fella get their inspiration from.
With all these players, the star is Jeffrey Wright. His portrayal of Muddy Waters from sharecropper to superstar details the ups and downs of everything going around him. Weighty emotions for his labelmates and his bad financial habits find him needing support from Leonard Chess and leaves Waters in a vulnerable place. Furthermore, his competition with rival Howlin’ Wolf played a subtle part in developing not only the sound, but the movement of Chess Records.Walker makes you believe that he was a fierce blues competitor and their clash had the makings of an on-wax rap battle.
But still trying to find her voice in all of this was Beyonce Knowles. Whereas Mos Def and Jeffrey Wright modified their voices to fit their roles, Knowles’ ability to mimic the great Etta James is just not there. Simply put, it’s Beyonce singing Etta James – which does not bode well for Ms. Knowles.
On the very basic level, this is a solid story. Most of the details are right-on in Cadillac Records, although Martin’s approach sometime blurs the lines of realism and fan-worshipping. With unforgettable performances, plenty of bottoms should be in the seats groovin’ to the blues on this one.