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.
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.
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, hes
putting the keys to a brand new Cadillac in the hands of his number one selling
artist. The how and why is whats missing.
Cadillac Records does get right is
pay homage to the great musicians including Etta James, portrayed with vigor by
Beyonce Knowles, Chuck Berry, whos 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? Thats never established and ultimately becomes the
main failing of the film.
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
The reasons to take
your parents to see this film are obvious; theyll love being taken down memory
lane. Will you learn something about your past and these legendary artists? Not
necessarily. What youll come away with is an appreciation for beautiful new
shiny Cadillacs, which are in a true abundance in this film. I dont 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.