Film Review: Cadillac Records

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"Cadillac Records" comes from Sony Music Film, so it's no surprise that the project is more a soundtrack in search of a movie than a film about the pre-eminent blues record label of the '50s and '60s and the fabulous artists who passed through its Chicago recording studio.

Nevertheless, writer-director Darnell Martin has assembled a stellar cast to impersonate these artists both as characters and musicians. That starts with executive producer Beyonce Knowles, who performs dynamic versions of Etta James classics and delivers the dramatic goods as the troubled and badly addicted young woman who lives the blues she sings.

With Adrien Brody as Polish emigre Leonard Chess, who ran Chess Records, and Jeffrey Wright as the great Muddy Waters, Mos Def as "crossover" artist Chuck Berry, Cedric the Entertainer as multitalented Willie Dixon, Eamonn Walker as domineering Howlin' Wolf, Columbus Short as the mercurial Little Walter and Gabrielle Union as Muddy's long-suffering woman, it's a movie that catches the eye as well as the ear. The film might only enjoy modest boxoffice, but for music buffs this is one terrific soundtrack.

The story of how "sharecropper music" evolved into both rock and R&B marks a seminal moment in American music history, which perhaps explains why two movies have emerged this year about Chess Records, the other being "Who Do You Love," which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival. Brothers Phil and Leonard Chess, who owned an upscale nightclub on Chicago's South Side, began recording blues artists on their indie label Chess Records in the '50s. The movie reduces this to a single brother, Leonard (Brody), and whizzes us through the brief but pivotal history of the label.

What jump-starts the company are the recordings of Delta-born slide guitarist Waters, followed by the addition of Dixon, a bassist who also is a talented producer and songwriter. The film is narrated by Cedric the Entertainer's Dixon, a device that makes the film feel more like a staged documentary than interpretative music history along the lines of "Ray" or "Walk the Line."

Martin mostly catches the sexual energy that goes into these recordings as the musicians treat music as a way to strut their stuff and top their rivals. They're like lions battling one another for supremacy in the pride. Howlin' Wolf even makes certain one of Waters' women is in the studio for him to seductively serenade while Waters looks on.

The film touches on Leonard's indulgence in payola and his shoddy bookkeeping but never makes up its mind whether he is a man who genuinely loves music or exploits his artists for his own financial gain. Certainly, his artists were nearly always broke, and the Chesses sold the company for $6.5 million in 1969.

In watching this film, it's best not to worry much about the film's fidelity to history but rather simply lean back and enjoy one great jam session on film.
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