‘Cadillac Records’: Great fun to watch — and to hear

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Thursday, December 4, 2008 2:05pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

Anybody with even a casual familiarity with music history will be flummoxed by “Cadillac Records,” a movie with a creative sense of time.

In this film, the Rolling Stones visit America sometime before Elvis hit it big, and Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” gets borrowed for the melody of “Surfin’ USA” before Berry is hauled off to jail in the late 1950s.

All right, pointing out this chronological fiction is a sign of rock and roll nerdiness. But if the movie gets history out of order, it succeeds in a couple of very entertaining ways: re-creating exciting music, and tracing the emotional ways people dealt with music and race in the ’50s.

This is the story of Chess Records, a Chicago label that issued a series of triumphant blues, R&B, and early rock records. The film covers a lot of ground, but it focuses on two parallel figures.

One is Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody), the Polish-born entrepreneur who founded the company (and ran it with a brother who is mostly left out of the film). The other is Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), the great bluesman whose early records for Chess helped put the company on the map.

In the movie’s interpretation of events, Leonard Chess doesn’t entirely realize how patronizing he is to his black artists, handing them Cadillacs rather than royalty checks. The issue of black musicians getting ripped off by white businessmen is a charged one, but writer-director Darnell Martin takes a moderate approach, examining the issue from different sides.

Much of the action is the kind of overly familiar music-biopic stuff that “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” trashed. Whatever; the period is so flavorful and the music so good that the formula still works.

Beyonce Knowles plays Etta James, who is depicted in the movie as having an unconsummated (and apparently unsubstantiated) romance with Leonard Chess; Mos Def, in frisky form, plays Chuck Berry, who comes along and rejuvenates “race music” into something entirely new.

The movie’s full of terrific performances. Eamonn Walker (from “Oz”) is sensational as Howlin’ Wolf, and Columbus Short fairly burns up the screen as the self-destructive harmonica genius Little Walter.

Jeffrey Wright’s steady Muddy Waters holds it all together. If you don’t know Wright — who recently renewed his role as James Bond’s U.S. counterpart in “Quantum of Solace” and played Colin Powell in “W.” — let’s say this: He’s probably the best living actor not yet nominated for an Oscar. Maybe that’ll change with this movie.

It’s kind of a mess, but the performances alone make “Cadillac Records” worth seeing — and it has a lot worth listening to, too.

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