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Cadillac Records movie poster

Cadillac Records

Genre: Drama
Rated: R
Directed by:
Darnell Martin
Starring: Adrien Brody, Jeffrey Wright, Gabrielle Union, Columbus Short, Cedric the Entertainer, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Eamonn Walker, Mos Def, Beyoncé Knowles
Released by: Sony Pictures

In Short: A charismatic ensemble cast illuminates the story of legendary blues label Chess Records.    
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Bluesmen on the Rise
Go For the Music, Stay For the Acting

On the surface there shouldn’t be anything all that remarkable about Cadillac Records. The film is more history than story as it chronicles the record label that launched Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Howlin' Wolf and Etta James. Yet although plenty of filmmakers have attempted something similar, few have succeeded nearly as well.

This is because director Darnell Martin (I Like it Like That, the Oz TV series) chose her cast brilliantly. Jeffrey Wright is the film’s soul as spare and stoic bluesman Muddy Waters, rising from Mississippi sharecropper to legend in just a few years thanks to Leonard Chess (played by Oscar winner Adrien Brody), the Polish immigrant who founded Chess Records.

Among Chess's other artists, Mos Def preens, duckwalks and revels as Chuck Berry, while the eyes of Eamonn Walker have a tractor beam's pull in every scene he appears in as Howlin' Wolf. And to add it it all, all these men did their own singing for this film. If there's any justice, Cadillac Records should launch major careers.

Columbus Short and Jeffrey Wright in Cadillac Records Beyoncé Knowles in Cadillac Records

Beyoncé Knowles might have held her own against lesser actors, but compared with these titanic performances, her Etta James bobs on the main. Any actor plays with fire when trying to cover an iconic song like James' signature "At Last," and Beyoncé's rendition feels like a cup of weak coffee. Could the fact that Knowles was the film's executive producer possibly have had anything to do with the casting?   

This inadvertently illustrates the film's theme of power and money in the music business. The title refers to Leonard Chess's penchant for bestowing Cadillacs upon his stars while keeping the big money for himself. True, the Caddy was the ultimate status symbol in those days when Rosa Parks had to ride in the back of the bus. But to borrow from the Rolling Stones—who are also briefly depicted in this film—you might get what you want, but is it really what you need?

Reviewed by Andrew Bender

PKR120408 (Updated: 12/05/08 KR)

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