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December 2008

by Wilson Morales


Distributor: TriStar Pictures
Director: Darnell Martin
Producers: Sofia Sondervan, Andrew Lack
Screenwriter: Darnell Martin

Cinematographer: Anastas Michos
Composer: Terence Blanchard
Cast: Adrien Brody, Jeffrey Wright, Beyonce Knowles, Columbus Short, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Cedric the Entertainer, Tammy Blanchard, Norman Reedus, Gabrielle Union, Mos Def

Rating: R (Profanity, Sexual Situations)

Running Time: 1:49


Although there are one too many stories in the film that makes it seemed rushed with an undeveloped script, 'Cadillac Records' still has the talent and the music that should propel audiences to come see where the heart of rock and roll started.

With an all-star cast that includes Adrien Brody as Leonard Chess, Jeffrey Wright as Muddy Waters, Emmanuelle Chriqui as Revetta Chess, Mos Def as Chuck Berry, Beyonce Knowles as Etta James, Gabrielle Union as Geneva Wade, Columbus Short as Little Walter, Cedric the Entertainer as Willie Dixon, Eamonn Walker as Howlin' Wolf, Eric Bogosian as Alan Freed, and Marc Bonan as Keith Richards, this ensemble film gives you an inkling to a record company that never really received its public respect over the course of time.

Written and directed by Darnell Martin, who based her idea on the stardom and struggles of Chess Records, the film leaves out one founder (Phil) while focusing on the other, Leonard Chess, played by Adrien Brody, and the musical legends that came out of this studio company.

Set in Chicago around 1947, Leonard's first signing and the catalyst that got the studio off the ground was Muddy Waters (Wright). Cool as a cat but painfully addicted to cheating on his loving wife Geneva (Union), no one was more focused and as good as Waters when it came to singing the blues. The same couldn't said be said for Little Walter, who initially started in Waters'band, but because of his talented skills with the harmonica, was signed on to perform on his own and did well before the booze and drugs got the best of him.

Following the same path as Walter but able to pick herself up and recover was Etta James (Knowles), whose song 'At Last', was a signature piece for the company. Leonard loved her music so much that his frequent time with James led to an affair, unbeknownst to his faithful wife (Chriqui).

Narrating the film is the guy who wrote most of the hit songs for the company, Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer). It's his lyrics that propelled stardom for guys who were good but became great such as Howlin' Wolf (Walker) and Chuck Berry (Mos Def). Unlike the rest of the singers in the group, Berry was the one who really hit a cord with mainstream America. His dalliance with both Whites and underage girls also cost him time away from the studio at a time when Chess didn't have the money to pay off everyone and couldn't afford more Cadillacs to sustain their appetite for more rewards.

As stated before, there's enough stories on these musical legends that each could and should have their own movie made sometime in the future but because it comes so fast paced in this film, it's presented as an undeveloped script. It's never explained how McKinley Morganfield became Muddy Waters or why the inclusion of Phil Chess, played by Shilol Fernandez, was left to a cameo appearance. There are plenty of other things that were missing that those who grew up on the music and knew a lot of Chess Records can point, but works in the film is still worth a lot. What stands out is the chemistry amongst the cast. Many have worked with each other on other projects and to work again just adds to a better rapport on screen. As Muddy, Jeffrey Wright is simply amazing. He holds it together with finesse. The scene stealer of the film is Columbus Short. As the fiery Little Walter, Short made you want to see more of him on screen, and his scene with Gabrielle Union and Wright is very poignant and heartbreaking.

As Etta James, much will be said and talked about Beyonce's performance, and hopefully the conclusion will be that she made Etta proud. One can never question her singing skills and with her acting, she really is getting better with each role.

The film may seem rushed with little to spare to get certain facts correct, but one thing you can get from seeing this is a great soundtrack to buy and chance to learn something about these famed musicians. If nothing else, one can always do research on the web for accuracies.