by HELEN GEIB
Cadillac Records is a dramatized account of the history of Chess Records, the Southside Chicago record company that was home to Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Etta James, and other Blues luminaries of the 1950s.
The film is a biopic that takes Chess Records, rather than any one person associated with the company, as its subject. People move in and out of the story as their lives became more or less closely tied to the company’s changing fortunes. The people who receive the most attention from the screenplay are the two men most nearly involved with Chess Records throughout its decade-plus long lifespan: Leonard Chess and Muddy Waters.
Chess (Adrien Brody) was the company’s founder, owner, and operator. He scouted Waters (Jeffrey Wright) in Chicago and started the company to make and distribute his recordings. Waters’ hits put Chess Records on the map, and it went on to produce a string of popular singles by Waters, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, Chuck Berry (in an electric performance by Mos Def), and Etta James (Beyonce Knowles). In addition to these artists, the film also recognizes the contributions of songwriter Willie Dixon. Dixon is played by Cedric the Entertainer, who narrates the film in the guise of Dixon recording a spoken history of the Chess Records studio.
At its heart, the film is a reaffirmation of the importance of their music. This is accomplished partly by putting the Chess Records story in context– personal biographies, social history, music history– and partly by including many scenes that recreate studio recording sessions and live performances. The film’s soundtrack is one of its strongest points. Highly enjoyable in itself, it should also have the no doubt hoped-for effect of prompting some in the audience to seek out the original recordings.
The story behind the music is very interesting and Cadillac Records is worth seeing for the history lesson spiced with great songs. However, the breadth of the lesson perversely works against the film succeeding as more than a handsomely mounted docudrama. The story of Chess Records, the music it produced, and the people who made it all happen is too big to do full justice in a feature film. There is no space to do more than touch upon many parts of the story, minor (such as payola) or major (the participants’ lives outside their connection to the studio). To instruct the audience in the larger significance of the music, coupled to its success on the charts, in the history of American race relations and as a musical underpinning of Rock ‘n’ Roll, the film resorts to documentary-style narration.