In this tale of sex, violence, race, and rock and roll in 1950s Chicago, "Cadillac Records" follows the exciting but turbulent lives of some of America's musical legends, including Muddy Waters, Leonard Chess, Little Walter, Howlin' Wolf, Etta James and Chuck Berry. Written by
Condensed Cream of Crop (Not Crap!) in Well-Cast Musical Biopic
Anyone remember those old K-Tel compilation albums with the hits slightly sped up so the K-Tel folks could pack in more songs? CADILLAC RECORDS (CR) gives a similar treatment to the story of Chess Records, nicknamed "Cadillac Records" because the Polish-American Chess brothers, Leonard and Phil (Adrien Brody and Norman Reedus, reunited from the film SIX WAYS TO Sunday), would give the artists Caddies as rewards -- out of the artists' own royalties! Chess Records got the music of Muddy Waters, Etta James, Chuck Berry, and other seminal R&B performers out to the general public, climbing the charts as what were then called "race records." Perhaps because of time and/or money constraints, writer/director Darnell Martin seems to rush through the Chess stars' highs (sometimes literally, with scenes of drug and/or alcohol abuse) and lows, forcing her to condense her subjects' dramatic life stories to the point where they don't even seem to age (other than a few perfunctory silver streaks visible in Brody's hair late in the film) despite the indication that years have passed. Even the Chess brothers' own story is only half-told, with the focus being on Leonard as Phil is rendered all but invisible. Heck, for half the film, I thought Phil was just another sound engineer, since we in the audience only ever see him during recording sessions! That said, I still found a lot to like about CR. I was riveted and moved by the events and the performances, and the musical numbers kick butt; I want the soundtrack (maybe even the original versions of the songs :-))! Jeffrey Wright commands the screen as Muddy Waters, who becomes Chess Records' first star, complete with groupies. He comes home one night to find wife Geneva (sympathetically played by Gabrielle Union) with a baby in her arms -- left there by a fan who says Muddy's the father. Mos Def adds sly humor as Chuck Berry. Eamonn Walker is downright scary as Muddy's rival, Howlin' Wolf. Columbus Short breaks your heart and drives you crazy all at once as Little Walter, whose lack of a mother or self-discipline proves to be his tragic flaw. Beyoncé Knowles shows she has range as both an actress and a singer in her fiery, heartrending portrayal of the talented but troubled Etta James. Leonard tries to help Etta to learn to "sing the blues, not live it," but with Etta's emotional baggage, that's easier said than done. Things only get more complicated when she and Leonard become attracted to each other despite his having a sweet, pretty wife, Revetta (Emmanuelle Chriqui). I'm not surprised that in real life, Etta herself gave her blessing to Beyoncé's soulful rendition of "At Last," the ultimate make-out song and Presidential inauguration anthem! :-) Although Leonard Chess is almost more like a host here than a well-drawn character, Brody nevertheless works well with the cast and has great chemistry with Beyoncé. In fact, he gets a good amount of on screen love action, including a nude scene with the fetching Chriqui! :-)
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