"Give it a chance; you'll probably be as pleasantly surprised."
I went into Cadillac Records with lower-than-normal expectations for a movie, which I blame on the inability of filmmakers to add anything fresh to the music biopic in recent years. Sure, Ray and Walk the Line were entertaining enough (arguably because of the lead actors), but it's sad when it's just a matter of directorial tone and a claim to historical fact that separates them from something like Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. The beats are always the same -- rise and fall thanks to women, booze, drugs, fame, etc. -- and sometimes, thanks to cinematic structure, they even come at the exact same moments. Because of this, it often feels like you can just intercut different music biopics and still get the same movie.
Cadillac Records isn't much different in that regard, except here you get the story of four recording legends rather than just one: Leonard Chess, the founder of Chess Records (Adrien Brody), and a few members of his staggering line-up of artists: Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), Little Walter (Columbus Short) and Etta James (Beyonce Knowles). The result -- made more complicated by the inclusion of significant story arcs about Chuck Berry (Mos Def) and Howlin' Wolf (Eamonn Walker) -- feels rushed, almost abbreviated like historical documentaries tend to be, but the drama never suffers for it thanks to the script and direction by Darnell Martin. That's my long-winded way of saying, despite my lower-than-normal expectations, I found myself drawn into Cadillac Records' story, even becoming emotionally involved enough to shed a few tears during the otherwise-familiar falls from grace of a few of the characters. A lot of the folks at Chess Records could fill up a music biopic all on their own -- particularly Waters, James, and Berry -- but together, with Leonard Chess at the head of the class, they form a big-screen musical super-team. Not a Justice League analogue, on which Beyonce herself would belong, but probably the Justice Society of America -- the original super-heroes of the blues and early rock and roll.
Martin also does something else interesting with the movie, so named because of Chess's habit of awarding hit recording artists with brand-new Cadillacs. She structures it around scenes set in the early '90s, showing songwriting legend Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer),now the owner of the original Chess Records studio, recording a tour for visitors that explains the studio's history, even as it's being used by rappers in the background to record the songs of their own generation. On the surface, you could say that this is to show how far the studio has fallen from its heyday when good music was being made there, but that would be a mistake. Martin spends the rest of the movie showing how Chess Records and the history of rock and roll was primarily populated by people you wouldn't want to let around your children and who -- despite how we come to admire them -- should never be looked upon as role models. Yes, their personal struggles might produce great music and you might even be able to draw inspiration from their ups and downs, but a disturbing percentage of our musical legends were gun-toting thugs, drunks and druggies, adulterers and even pedophiles. The world of rap, as vilified as its stars are, doesn't seem so horrible in comparison to the lives folks like Waters, Walter and James led.
Cadillac Records won't win any Oscars, although I think Wright and especially Mos Def deserve nods for their performances, but it does manage to rise above the limitations of the music biopic to entertain and even leave you aching for a Chess Records compilation to show up in your stocking this Christmas. Give it a chance; you'll probably be as pleasantly surprised as I was.