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Cadillac Records Review

Cadillac Records: Spot-On Performances Bring Legends to Life

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

Join The Conversation
liliblu liliblu 8 years
I've heard a lot of good things about Beyonce's performance in this film. I enjoyed her in Dream Girls. Angela Bassett looks nothing like Tina Turner. But by the end of What's Love Got to Do with It, Bassett was Tina.
krae85 krae85 8 years
no desire to see this.
bellaressa bellaressa 8 years
Well someone should tell Ella to stop lying in interviews.
bychance bychance 8 years
Beyonce wasn't hand picked by Etta, Beyonce is the executive producer of the film. If she was, they wouldn't have asked Etta what she thought about the casting if she did it herself!
reesiecup reesiecup 8 years
love mos def!
luckiedog luckiedog 8 years
Ditto on the Beyonce sentiment. Maybe if they featured Mos Def more prominently in the trailer I'd be more encouraged to watch it.
bellaressa bellaressa 8 years
Well Beyonce was hand picked by Etta, so Etta wanted her.
Audrey1974 Audrey1974 8 years
I'm not a Beyonce Knowles--actress fan...especially when she plays a singer. I already know she can sing; why does she keep playing the same role? Every movie she does is just a version of Beyonce Knowles--singer, with different hair. I don't buy it. That's my hang up of watching any movie with her in it...
harmonyfrance harmonyfrance 8 years
I'm excited to see this. I have to say that normally I would agree with those above about avoiding it due to Beyonce, but I can tell from the previews that she is improving as an actor.
pink-elephant pink-elephant 8 years
Linda-McP Linda-McP 8 years
Wonderful review, Buzz. I'll be adding this one to my Netflix queue and move it to the top as soon as it's available.
tlsgirl tlsgirl 8 years
I totally trust your judgment Buzz, but I just can't see a movie that stars Beyonce. Dreamgirls was so awful I couldn't even finish watching it, and I just can't do it again.
MicrochipJoel MicrochipJoel 8 years
Thanks Buzz for your informed review, Seems like this may have been better as a made for TV movie. As an aside, there should be a Music History Channel. It seems to me the history channel always shows war documentaries or prophecy (really, enough with Nostradamus!!!) In any case, I am not a huge fan of Beyonce, but I am willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. Oh yeah, Mos Def is alright too, but since his 16 blocks movie he kind of annoys me as an actor. Maybe he'll redeem himself. *Note to self, add to Netflix queue when available.
superstar2780 superstar2780 8 years
I'm wary of the beyonce aspect too ... I might have to wait until this comes out on dvd. or even cable, haha.
CaterpillarGirl CaterpillarGirl 8 years
I cant, I just cant, Beyonce looks and sounds NOTHING like Etta You just cant stick a white blonde wig on a sister and call her etta
dcfashionista dcfashionista 8 years
What a nice and concise review. I want to see this and I may take my grandma since she is aware of the musicians.
ilanac13 ilanac13 8 years
i just can't get into a movie that has beyonce as a character in it. i don't know what my hang up is there - but that's just the case. i know that we keep hearing great things about what she does on screen in all her projects - but i don't know. chances are even though you like the acting and the music, i'm probably still not going to see it.
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