Cadillac Records, director Darnell Martin’s sprawling love letter to Chess Records, is an engaging film, one that will have audiophiles hooked from Alan Lomax’s initial meeting with Muddy Waters in the fields of Mississippi to the closing numbers from Etta James. The film is structured like a straight biopic, with its focus not on any one person, but on a plethora of artists, creating somewhat of a scattered portrait of Leonard Chess’ Chess Records. With such a rich history, one of the many difficulties of this film are the myriad ways to approach it: its music, historical significance, performances, cinematic structure, source material. Martin brings it all together to create a film that's wonderfully entertaining, yet occasionally frustrating.
This should be expected. The subject matter is simply too big to tackle in 109 minutes. How should someone shoot a film that is going to chronicle the years when Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody), Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), Little Walter (Columbus Short), Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker), Etta James (Beyonce Knowles), Chuck Berry (Mos Def), Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer), and many others found their lives intertwining through a singular experience in the rise of Chess Records? And because these artists challenged both the ways in which America heard music and the racial segregation of an entire nation, the film becomes inextricable from its politics. The film, however, rarely penetrates the surface.
Still, Cadillac Records manages to encapsulate so much of what made this era important. Despite its inability to fully tackle the material, it's hard not to be enthralled with the story. And aside from a fantastic soundtrack (and how could that really go wrong?), some truly wonderful performances are turned in -- Adrien Brody, Jeffrey Wright, and Gabrielle Union all lend a depth to the brief glimpses of these characters. Union, especially, shines in her limited screen time, portraying a complex Geneva Wade dedicated to both her marriage with Muddy Waters and the lives of the musicians who become part of their “family.” The subtlety of her performance brings much needed pause into a film that often moves too quickly with few reference points. Opposite her, Jeffrey Wright continues to reveal his versatility. Despite the fact that he generally bears no resemblance to Muddy Waters, his mannerisms evoke the great bluesman perfectly.
While the film's structure is like an oral recollection (narrated by the great songwriter Willie Dixon), Martin thankfully avoids turning Cadillac Records into a biopic cliché, like Walk the Line or Ray. The focus always remains on what these personal struggles mean to the label and how they affected Chess’ rise to prominence. Martin certainly deserves praise in this regard. With so many interesting personal stories behind these artists, the film could have been even more scattered. Despite the fact that the film often moves too fast and frequently plays out like a Wikipedia entry on Chess Records, a solid screenplay, performances, and important subject matter make Cadillac Records an aural smörgåsbord that, in the end, overcomes its pitfalls.