MOVIE REVIEW: Cadillac Records

Cadillac

Records

really could have solely been the life story of blues legend Muddy Waters; or of

the feisty Etta James or even a whole depiction of the trials and tribulations

of Little Walter. However, the film takes on the arduous task of including all

of these artists and more while chronicling their rise to fame on Chess

Records. As a consequence, the two and a half hour film has a lot of ground in the

allotted time, however falls flat in its pursuit.

 

The

story revolves around the incomparable Waters, and his partnership with the

seemingly passionate Leonard Chess, who eventually spearheads a “race records”

label called Chess Records. We witness both of them at the beginning of their

careers: Muddy, in the fields singing spirituals with other field hands and

Leonard with the woman he wants to someday marry when his money is right, both with

dreams of a better life. Muddy had the innate talent and Leonard had the vision

to later form a historic lifetime bond.

 

Cadillac is

long on short artist vignettes, but short on the actual telling the creation of

the Chess empire; as soon as the label is created, we see almost immediate stardom.

In one scene, Leonard is struggling to pay his mortgage and in the next, he’s

putting the keys to a brand new Cadillac in the hands of his number one selling

artist. The how and why is what’s missing.

 

What

Cadillac Records does get right is

pay homage to the great musicians including Etta James, portrayed with vigor by

Beyonce Knowles, Chuck Berry, who’s played cheerfully by Mos Def, Little

Walter, over killed by Columbus Short and Cedric the Entertainer on screen as Willie

Dixon. The lack of storytelling is made up for with musical collaborations. The

studio sessions with Little Walter on harmonica and Muddy Waters on guitar

blend effortlessly, and are the most dynamic of the entire movie. They make you

fall in love with the blues. When you see Etta James behind the microphone

belting out “At Last,” you really do yearn for more.

 

The film never fully

examines these artists’ relationships, their insecurities or their immediate desire

to make music. Each musician is thrown onto the screen for a very short amount

of time with barely enough dialog and background for the audience to become

emotionally invested. Etta, like Chuck and even Howlin’ Wolf, just shows up one

day and signs to the label and becomes an instant crossover sensation. Who are

these legendary musicians, singers and dreadfully-depressed rock and rollers?

And why should we care? That’s never established and ultimately becomes the

main failing of the film.

 

The standout

performance comes from Gabrielle Union, who portrays Muddy Waters’ woman, whom

he meets on the streets of Chicago while playing outside her window. She

endures his years of womanizing and baby making without any resistance and

offers the most sincere portrayal of loyalty and submission. Her role was the

most authentic in the film and should be recognized as one of her best

performances to date. Forget playing the sexy siren, Union shines as the dotty

matriarch. When she cries, you feel her pain and when she smiles, you feel the

warmth.

 

The reasons to take

your parents to see this film are obvious; they’ll love being taken down memory

lane. Will you learn something about your past and these legendary artists? Not

necessarily. What you’ll come away with is an appreciation for beautiful new

shiny Cadillac’s, which are in a true abundance in this film. I don’t recommend

this film for all of the reasons stated earlier, but let it be known that Chess

Records was a vital part of our musical history and its beginnings on the south

side of Chicago make for an interesting start to a sacred bond between the

Blues and Hip-Hop. The struggle and the passion of these early musicians’ might

just prompt you to engage in a conversation with your elders over this holiday

season. And if, by chance, you want to spend some time talking about the blues,

spend $10 and take them to see Cadillac

Records, if for no other reason but to connect to our musical past.

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