Cadillac Records is a revelatory foray into the period of American music when ‘race’ records were being made, concerts were segregated and when the blues ruled, before ushering in the age of rock & roll. It shows the struggles, challenges and travails of racism, exploitation, celebrity excesses, drugs/alcohol dependency, personal pain and human frailty. It also reveals the power of friendship and the trials of love. Executive Producer Beyonce (yes, as in Knowles) must be commended for bringing this important bio-pic to life. I’m not sure it redeems her from unleashing the hopelessly mediocre ‘Obsessed’ on the world but it’s a start!
Cadillac Records is an intriguing, engaging and moving exploration of the lives and work of Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, Chuck Berry and the incendiary Etta James, as brought together under the umbrella of Leonard Chess’ Chess Records. Using the technique of narration/storytelling the movie beautifully and humanely captures the ethos, ecstasy and pain of this watermark period in American Pop Culture. The script, commendably, does water-down the tale or seek to sanctify any of the real-life characters, it simply tells their collective story, with glimpses into their individual lives. The result is a joyous, powerful, often painful journey, sweetened with great music. Thankfully, after going through these trials, all these pioneers have been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Darnell Martin’s well-crafted and deftly directed script is marvelously enriched by a wonderful cast. Muddy Waters is masterfully played by one of my favourite underrated actors Jeffrey Wright. He is a joy to watch; his performance was detailed, measured and delivered with evocative restraint. Wright is ably partnered with Adrien Brody in a richly textured portrayal as music producer and visionary Leonard Chess. Beyonce is actually quite good as Etta James. She is not anywhere near as magnificent or larger than life as Etta, but she was gritty and credible and held her own on Etta’s unforgettable gut-wrenching life-songs. Gabrielle Union turns in a solid and eloquent performance as Muddy Waters’ lover/partner Geneva. The charming and effusive Mos Def is delightful as Chuck Berry.
My two favourite performances come from another of my favourite underrated actors Columbus Short and the imposing Eamonn Walker. Short’s magnificent, seething and screen-filling romp as Little Walter is enough to warrant a film of its own, while Walker in the much smaller role of the smoldering Howlin’ Wolf is absolutely riveting! The cast is rounded out by Cedric the Entertainer as the narrator songwriter/lyricist Willie Dixon.
It would be remiss of me not to mention that this movie is also replete with great music.
Cadillac Records is well worth seeing…in fact, I highly recommend it!!