Cadillac Records Directed by: Darnell Martin Cast: Adrien Brody, Jeffrey Wright, Columbus Short, Beyonce Knowles Running Time: 1 hr 50 mins Rating: R
Plot: The story of record producer Leonard Chess (Brody) and the blues musicians he made famous with his Chicago based company Chess Records.
Who’s It For? Music fans, particularly those of Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Etta James etc., would be better off reading a book, or hell, even a Wikipedia page. Beyonce fans will get a kick out of seeing one of their Dreamgirls ham it up once again. But falling into a sad realm of forget-ability will be Wright's noteworthy portrayal of Muddy Waters.
Expectations: Music movies tend to clone themselves as much as sports films. Considering this, would a music movie with more musicians than usual have even more cliches? And unlike most December releases, this film's buzz has been relatively under the radar - for what reason?
Actors: Adrien Brody as Leonard Chess: Finally, Brody has taken a break from being the mouse (The Darjeeling Limited, The Brothers Bloom). His portrayal of the record company owner lets him play a strong leader - a part foreign to him. Though his character is one of many casualties to the script's underwriting, Brody does a respectable job of making Leonard Chess intriguing, despite his clipped, sporadic screen time. Score: 6
Jeffrey Wright as Muddy Waters: Wow. Jeffrey Wright nails the musical mannerisms of a blues guitar player and transforms his voice into an authentic, never exaggerated drawl; and does such a remarkable embodiment with little pretension. Wright successfully navigates Muddy Waters in all stages of his life, and presents each with equal power. The actor nearly disappears into the role and gives Cadillac Records its own type of successful hit. Score: 8
Columbus Short as Little Walter: Columbus Short did his time on Stomp the Yard, and is now trying to get a real job. This performance is an honest attempt at such credibility, but the rising talent falls short (no pun intended). The actor who made the inane dance film watch-able takes on the very demanding role of Little Walter, but can't carry the character's heavy histrionics such as random outbursts of violence or pitiful moments of alcoholism. Short's attempt at reincarnating the troubled harmonica player is weakened by over-dramatics (which the story shares some blame) and even shoddy instrument playing. Though faulty, it is a commendable performance by an actor who is proving he will some day wow us. Score: 5
Beyonce Knowles as Etta James: She first appears an hour into the film, but actress/co-executive producer Beyonce caters Cadillac Records to satisfy her ego the minute she's on screen. Her decent impersonation of "At Last" singer Etta James immediately hogs the film's focus. Main characters like Muddy Waters or Chuck Berry (who were already undeveloped), take the back seat in what evolves into a selfish starring-vehicle. She essentially turns the thickly cast film into another moment to cry, sing, or do a combination of both. Then, as if her egocentricity wasn't obvious enough, what do we hear during the credits of a film that had music by Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Little Walter, and even the Rolling Stones? None other than a song co-written and performed by Beyonce. Score: 3
Mos Def as Chuck Berry: Columbus Short and Adrien Brody have a few jokes in the film, but no one actually produces laughs like Mos Def when he impersonates guitarist Chuck Berry. Similar to other actors, (such as Eamonn Walker playing Howlin' Wolf), Mos Def suddenly pops into Cadillac Records, and then a few scenes later is almost erased from the film's memory (though in this case with actual reason). The script reduces Chuck Berry to a simple guitar player with jokes, but Mos Def bodes well with the material he is provided. Score: 6
Rest of Cast: Many familiar faces are in the film, though their brief appearances feel less like cameos and more like trimmed victims of script rewrites. Cedric the Entertainer does his best Morgan Freeman impersonation when he narrates the film as songwriter Willie Dixon. The talents of Gabrielle Union and Emmanuelle Chriqui are underused playing the wives of Muddy Waters and Leonard Chess, respectively. Eamonn Walker charms as the vicious Howlin' Wolf with a creepy seductiveness. Score: 6
Talking: The heavy southern drawls that Short and Wright have in their voices sometimes drown out bits of dialogue, along with a few jokes. Though likely accurate to their portrayals, some lines are nearly incomprehensible. While the script isn't burdened with any particular weak dialogue, it does have a strange perference with having everyone playfully calling each other "motherf***er" and almost nothing else. Score: 5
Sights: With the exception of Wright's guitar playing, many of the actors do poor imitations of playing their particular instruments. It certainly isn't easy to fake playing like the best, but here the effort is lacking, as if the actors forfeited a piece of realism because learning their instrument might prove too difficult. Score: 4
Sounds: Classic songs from Chess Records are re-recorded, often with surprising authenticity. However, the film neglects to tell the names of these tracks, and tends to play a song being performed and recorded in Chess Studios from beginning to end. Worse than all of this is its puny, sacrilegious version of the Beach Boys' "Surfin' U.S.A", which is heard in the film's third act to anchor Cadillac's exposure of rock 'n roll's red-handed robbery from the blues; (which is true, but to be fair they don't call out the Beatles' "Roll Over Beethoven", which also rips off Chuck Berry). However, even more offensive than its Beach Boys desecration is the film's implementation of hip hop right before the credits. While rightfully stating in the narrative that blues music is the roots for many different genres of music, it strives egregiously hard for a modern connection by having a Muddy Waters riff played underneath a hip hop beat is contradictory but more importantly lame. Score: 5
Like the worst of biographical films, Cadillac Records skips certain tracks of its own story to reach parts that are the most provocative. Other than educating it's audience with a 101 lesson of the music of Chess Records, the film predominantly focuses on moments of accomplishment and destruction. Amidst this, backgrounds of characters are forgotten. While rapidly hopping forward in time, the film completely disregards the important instrument of cohesion. Valuable characters become nameless, people are either suddenly married or cheating, and the year of which these events take place is always a mystery. Essentially, this is a music bio-flick dumbed down to appeal to a mainstream audience's own dreams of success and sex-cess.
Unsatisfactory, the film is a rare example of a script that one wishes would be longer so that both the music and the story behind such legendary figures could be justified. Similar to what happened with Muddy Waters or Chuck Berry, Cadillac Records is ruined by cliched elements like sex, drugs, and even rock 'n roll.
Final Score: 4/10