There's plenty wrong with director Darnell Martin's biopic about Chicago's famous record label Chess Records, including the confusing title: Cadillac Records. What with the production quality that makes the film look like a sound stage, amateurish editing, and a script that bites off too many legends than it can chew, this movie's got issues.
But you know what? I forgive it these faults for two reasons: the performances are out-of-this-world good (Beyonce actually sets the screen on fire), and the awesome music is prominently on display with most of the actors doing most of the singing. The resulting experience is less a cerebral one (it is awfully formulaic) and more primal. The music moved me, and the performances are so powerful they got under my skin and stayed with me for days.
To see what else I so enjoyed about this ensemble cast (including what might be my favorite Mos Def performance ever),
The musical biopic is as formulaic as a Hollywood genre gets these days, and Cadillac Records does nothing to break free of the now-predictable twists and turns. Improbable rise to fame after overcoming hardship? Check. Breakout moment where the artist really becomes a star? Check. Fame that comes with an emotional price to pay? Check. Drug and alcohol use and abuse? Oh, of course. And the men, they will not be faithful to their wives, and the wives, they will be so sad but will stoically love their tortured artists anyway. You can expect all these tiring cliches and more from this movie.
But the story of Chicago's Chess Records is not only compelling, it's important. Founded by Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody), this itty-bitty record label made stars out of folks like Muddy Waters (who Jeffrey Wright plays with a fantastically down-and-dirty swagger). Bursting with talent, each new artist that Leonard takes on struggles with the demons you'd expect to plague anyone who reaches heights they've never imagined in a society that doesn't think they deserve it. The movie portrays a sad time in America's history indeed, when the powers that be even tried to keep the songs on the radio separate but equal. But the music will find a way, and so it did when the raucous, soulful blues pouring out of Chess found an audience.
As earnestly as this movie handles the music-sees-no-color theme (Cedric the Entertainer does some voiceover narration that doesn't help with the hokey factor), I was still deeply moved. This has less to do with the facts of the story and more to do with the raw emotion and pure joy radiating off each of these performers. Beyonce's Etta James is sassy, hardened, and bursting at the seams — physically and emotionally — with feelings of self-hate due to a lifetime of rejection. When she sings, you really do feel her pain and are never sure if she's going to break down midsong in a puddle of tears or punch someone. My other favorite is Mos Def, who plays Chuck Berry with aplomb. He runs off with the scene each and every time he's on the screen.
These were turbulent times, and the pacing of the movie reflects that. It sweats and jams along at a speed that rarely sags, with musical performances that either break out in gun shots, yelling, or a growl. A stronger center would have helped the narrative out a bit, and it seems that that's what they were trying to do with Brody's character. Chess has a nose for business and cares about his artists, but too often the personal and professional collide, resulting in the kind of paternalistic treatment from a white dude that these musicians have endured their whole lives. Unfortunately, this character isn't filled out enough here, which makes caring about him difficult and gives all these plot lines nothing to rotate around. As entertaining as they all are, a movie focused on one, maybe two, of these artists would have sufficed (as it is, it's like Ray times five). This isn't the movie these musical founders deserve, but these are the best performances anyone concerned with their legacies could ask for.
Photos courtesy of Sony Pictures