- Adrien Brody as Leonard Chess
- Jeffrey Wright as Muddy Waters
- Columbus Short as Little Walter
- Beyoncé Knowles as Etta James
- Mos Def as Chuck Berry
- Eamonn Walker as Howlin Wolf
- Gabrielle Union as Geneva Wade
- Emmanuelle Chriqui as Revetta Chess
- Cedric the Entertainer as Willie Dixon
Charting the history of Chicago based Chess Records in the 1950’s, Cadillac Records is a sometimes uneven but always interesting biopic of the man behind it, Leonard Chess and the roster of stars that signed to the label and created rock n roll and blues sounds that live on today. What it lacks in originality it more than makes up for with soulful music and some great performances.
Narrated by Willie Dixon, we see as Leonard Chess, a Polish immigrant manages to work his way up the ladder of success because of his ear for talent and non-judgemental view of people. He sees the world of blues and rock n roll as a way to make money and treats the singers like a family. He works hard to craft the record label, which got the eponymous nickname because Chess would give his artists a Cadillac when sales increased. Yet his job isn’t easy as he brings talent into the arena as booze, jealousy and drugs emerge just as much as the rock n roll and blues play. Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Etta James and Chuck Berry are just some of the artists whose tales are told in this story of rock n roll and the troubling nature of fame and the influence of Leonard Chess.
Director Darnell Martin has a keen eye for detail which takes us into the fast-moving world of booze, blues and fast cars of the 1950’s. The editing used is effortless in combining old news reels to the events onscreen. Where the film falters is how issues such as racism and the dubious accounts of the label are skated over without much thought. If these issues had been presented rather than being relegated, the film may have flowed better. The passage of time is also out of tune with years passing by without a single notice. On a positive note, the narration by Willie Dixon(portrayed with wise charm and humour by Cedric the Entertainer) makes for intriguing viewing as he dissects the rise and fall of Chess Records from an inside perspective.
Where Cadillac Records really hits its stride is in the music and the performances of the cast. The scenes of artists performing make for immensely great viewing as we watch the construction of so many influential kinds of music that still have power today. The cast performs these classic numbers with clarity, emotion and above all soul. Adrien Brody is compelling as the driven Leonard, whose label soon becomes too much for him to control as music changes and the 60’s ushers in a new sound. Jeffrey Wright emerges as one of the standout players with a robust performance as Muddy Waters. He delves into the mindset of a talented individual, ladies man and immense performer. Columbus Short provides pathos as the talented but ultimately tragic Little Water, who spiralled out of control as a result of drink addiction. Music star Beyoncé Knowles sizzles as the sexy, feisty but vulnerable Etta James. She shows us the wounded women with a stellar voice who is afraid of rejection and whose life is as eventful as a blues number as she falls into drugs and booze. Knowles should be praised for her emotive rendition of ‘At Last’, which she sings with such beautiful emotional strength. Mos Def imbues the role of Chuck Berry with humour and flair that can’t be bettered. In his small role as Howlin Wolf, Eamonn Walker provides danger and an almost combustible talent. Unfortunately, Gabrielle Union and Emmanuelle Chriqui are saddled with underwritten roles as the wives of Chess and Waters.
It might be uneven and sometimes a little distracting, but Cadillac Records soars with its musical numbers, visual style and soulful performances that keep the viewer engaged throughout.