Sun Records and its owner, Sam Phillips, are often given credit for the birth of rock 'n' roll. But "Cadillac Records" makes a convincing case for Chess Records and founders Leonard and Phil Chess--though in true Hollywood fashion, poor Phil has been cut out of the picture to make for a more focused narrative. Sun may have had Elvis, but Chess had Chuck Berry, who joined an all-star roster of blues and R&B artists that included Muddy Waters--the man who made the most compelling case with this simple analogy: "The blues had a baby and they called it rock 'n' roll." So the Chess brothers, who created the most storied blues label of all-time, have my vote. Heck, Sam Phillips didn't even have to pack a sidearm and go into rough neighborhoods to find his talent!
Just don't expect a history of rock 'n' roll, or even blues in this biopic. The basics are all here, but events and characters have been altered to make for a more dramatic story arc, particularly where tragedy is involved. And as interesting as the characters are, it's really about the music, mother fucker. Oops. That just slipped out. Which is to say, there's some gritty language in this film that's rendered matter-of-factly. Even Beyoncé, who plays rhythm and blues singer Etta James, has a potty mouth (along with a heroin habit)--though that "mf" phrase sounds funniest and most unnatural coming out of the mouth of Adrien Brody, who plays Leonard Chess. Then again, this was a white man in the fifties who was going into dangerous all-black neighborhoods and opening up a "race bar," and if the performers and patrons talked the talk and walked a sometimes violent walk, he needed to as well.
The thing is, it's easy to walk away from this film and wonder if the sometimes strained relationship between Chess and his artists was whitewashed just a bit. There was enough resentment in real life from some of them that they bolted for another label because they were feeling exploited. We're told that Chess had a habit of tossing his musicians the keys to a brand-new Cadillac, but not telling them that the money would be deducted out of their earnings--hence the nickname "Cadillac Records." You get a basic sense of what Chess would do to keep his artists happy, but there's no sense of how much he did or did not like the music, or whether he started a race club and record label only to make a buck or to take part in a scene that he loved. In real life, Chess liked the music well enough to play drums on at least one recording session, but you don't get that sense here. It's all a bit murky.
Maybe that's deliberate. Certainly, writer-director Darnell Martin ("Law & Order") gives us a script that tries awfully hard to be fair to all of the characters, showing us their slick profiles and warts as well. And they're all brought to life with incredible force by a stellar cast. Jeffrey Wright is wonderful as McKinley Morganstern, a.k.a. Muddy Waters, the bluesman who brought his Robert Johnson-style bottle slide guitar playing from Mississippi to Chicago, where he meets Leonard Chess. Gabrielle Union is convincing as Waters' wife, Geneva Wade, while Cedric the Entertainer does a surprisingly good job of portraying the stocky Willie Dixon, who produced at Chess Records and also wrote many of the songs--though some bluesmen feel that Dixon mostly had the good sense to copyright longstanding anonymous folk-blues standards. The surprise is how good Beyoncé is in her role, and how instantly we're able to forget she's Beyoncé. Same with Mos Def, really, who plays a mean Chuck Berry.
It's the performances and music that make "Cadillac Records" worth watching, and worth watching again. The whole cast is fabulous, but Columbus Short ("Stomp the Yard") is such a revelation as harmonica player extraordinaire Little Walter, and Eamonn Walker ("Justice") is so eerily powerful as electric bluesman Howlin' Wolf, that they both add an energy to this film that would be sorely lacking were the parts played by different actors. The focal point may be on the relationship between Chess and Waters, but the film's lifeblood comes from these dangerous characters on the fringe. These guys do their own singing, too. Mos Def really clicks on "No Particular Place to Go" and "Nadine," while Columbus Short sings a convincing "My Babe" (though he doesn't have the harmonica chops to do "Last Night," which was all vintage Little Walter). Meanwhile, Jeffrey Wright delivers pulsing versions of "I'm a Man" and "Hoochie Coochie Man," and Beyoncé does a darned good job singing torch songs like "At Last," "Once in a Lifetime," and "I'd Rather Go Blind." Great music!
"Cadillac Records" also attempts to offer a brief history of rock 'n' roll, touching on the payola period in radio and race relations in two decades of rock 'n' roll, with "reports" of the Beach Boys and Jan & Dean surf craze and the British Invasion. The blues may have been born in America, but as far as bluesmen were concerned, it was the Brits, the French, and the rest of Europe who gave them the respect they deserved. That comes across loud and clear in this film--and the music makes this lesson worth repeating.
Once again, Sony went with an AVC/MPEG-4 transfer on a BD-50 disc, and it looks fairly decent in 1080p. There's some inconsistency, though, from scene to scene. A number of scenes look a little soft, with colors that look slightly undersaturated; other scenes look richly textured; still others have an orange-yellow cast to them to create a sense of antiquing. At any rate, it appears more deliberate choice than a flaw in the transfer or filming. "Cadillac Records" is presented in 2.35:1 aspect ratio.
Given the fact that the music is such an important component of this film, it's a little surprising that the soundtrack isn't more dynamic. It's not bad, mind you, but it doesn't have the bright treble, pulsing bass, and overall "pop" that I expected. Sony likes Dolby TrueHD 5.1 (this time it was in English or French, with English, English SDH, and French subtitles) but I can't help but wonder what a PCM soundtrack would have done for this film.
"Cadillac Records" is even more impressive when you listen to Martin talk on the commentary track about what a low-budget affair it was. Though some narrative liberties were taken, you come to understand that the director did her research and that any deviation from the truth was strictly made for artistic reasons. For someone from New York, she's certainly passionate about the blues. It's an above-average track that's well worth a listen. Same with a 26-minute making-of feature that tries to situate the film in the context of the period and musicians depicted. A shorter feature (roughly 15 minutes) explores the costume and set design, focusing on the three-decade period the movie spanned and the challenges it posed. Rounding out the bonus features are five deleted scenes that average a minute apiece and trailers for other Sony titles . . . but not this one.
One cool feature is perhaps the best use of BD-Live that I've scene--but, of course, that means you'll need a Profile 2.0 player and an Internet connection. "The Chess Record Player" is "an interactive playlist feature that allows you to create and share a list of songs featured in the movie" with your friends.
Like "Dreamgirls," this film aims to capture not just the essence of music and musicians, but an era as well. And writer-director Darnell Martin does a good job of focusing on the "devil's music" and the initial attraction it held for whites when blues first "crossed over." It may not be totally accurate history, but it certainly gets the feel of the music right.