Cadillac Records (R)

Directed by Darnell Martin

Starring Adrien Brody, Beyoncé Knowles, Mos Def, Eamonn Walker, Jeffrey Wright and Columbus Short


If I had realized that Darnell Martin was the writer/director, I'd have gone to see Cadillac Records with a lot more enthusiasm. Martin made a terrific low-budget film called I Like It Like That in 1994 and seemed destined for an outstanding big-screen career. But she's worked mostly in television since then. On its face, Cadillac Records appears to be just another attempt to box up some great old songs and pass them off as a movie. The picture has something of that structure, and I wouldn't be surprised if it wasn't attractive to studio executives because they thought they had a product they could market to African-American audiences. But Martin is too gifted a storyteller to settle for a cookie-cutter narrative sandwiched around some music. Cadillac Records is far from perfect, but it's a pleasant surprise.

The story of the musicians who created the rhythm-and-blues sound that gave birth to rock 'n' roll, Cadillac Records is also the story of Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody), a Polish Jew who transforms himself from junkyard dealer to nightclub owner to the record producer who discovered and promoted the landmark talents of Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), Little Walter (Columbus Short), Howlin' Wolf (Eamonn Walker), Chuck Berry (Mos Def) and Etta James (Beyoncé Knowles). The film begins as a buddy picture. Leonard hears Muddy Waters play and records him. The two men drive through rural America in the early 1950s to convince local disc jockeys to play his songs. They don't have much in common, but they do have a shared interest in the bluesman's career. After a fashion, they become close and remain so throughout their lives.

Cadillac Records is a little shaky in its handling of time. The picture purports to start in 1941 when Muddy Waters, working as a Mississippi plantation field hand, is first recorded as part of a Smithsonian preservation project. The film moves forward in time without taking notice of World War II and never makes clear when Waters arrives in Chicago or when he meets Leonard. It is well documented that the Rolling Stones were huge fans of Waters' music and were part of the British invasion that was launched by the Beatles' appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964. But Cadillac Records makes it seem like the Stones came to America first, and the Brits and their great American rivals, the Beach Boys, were musical sensations coincident with, not subsequent to, the dominance of popular music by Elvis Presley, who exploded into America's consciousness with appearances on Milton Berle, Steve Allen and Ed Sullivan's TV programs in the summer of 1956.

I also found myself wishing for greater clarity about the financial side of Leonard's behavior. As portrayed, Leonard has a great ear for the originality and marketability of the artists he records. He also seems genuinely fond of Muddy Waters. His habit of buying Cadillacs for his stars, an act that seems like a gift but is later revealed to be a debit against royalties, is certainly patronizing given the times, perhaps not virulently so. We get scenes where both Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters wonder if Leonard has treated them fairly, but we're never certain whether he has or hasn't — whether he has looked out for their interests or merely exploited them.

These concerns aside, Cadillac Records is notable for the detail of its character development. Everyone is depicted in shades of gray. Muddy loves his wife Geneva (Gabrielle Union), but he cheats on her incessantly, if not indifferent then blind to the pain his infidelities cause her. Little Walter is an alcoholic given to violent rages and acts of provocation that result in repeated beatings. Martin shows us the torment of his horrible childhood and makes him a character we care about rather than detest. Howlin' Wolf is proud and angry but self-contained. Chuck Berry is a genius who marches to the beat of his own drum, at once remarkably self-disciplined and needlessly risky. And Etta James is someone so full of pain and self-contempt that she's a likelier candidate for suicide watch than stardom.

The music, of course, is the reason this film got made and reason enough to see it. The musical performances by the actors are uniformly excellent, and those by Beyoncé are simply sensational. I was full of praise for her work in Dreamgirls. She's even better here, both as a singer and as an actress.