Cadillac Records

Distributed by: TriStar Pictures

Reviewed by Melissa Minners


            During my last trip to the video rental store, I remembered that a co-worker had raved about Cadillac Records, a movie starring Adrien Brody, Beyonce Knowles and Jeffrey Wright.  Not being a fan of Beyonce Knowles’ acting abilities, I decided to try the movie out anyway.  After all, this movie was based upon an important bit of history in the music industry and I was intrigued.

            Cadillac Records is about the rise and fall of Chess Records, the record company that launched many a talented musician’s career, but specialized in blues and soul.  Adrien Brody stars as Leonard Chess, a man with a dream who came from nothing but was determined to make his dream come true.  Beginning his foray into the music scene as a nightclub owner, Chess eventually became co-owner of a record company in Chicago and the rest is history.

            Jeffrey Wright portrays Muddy Waters, a blues musician from Mississippi who became one of Chess Records’ first success stories.  Muddy rolled around in style in a brand new Cadillac, payment for his first chart topping single.  Then Chess added to his record label by signing blues singer and harmonica master, Little Walter (Columbus Short), musician and songwriter Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer) and blues singer and guitarist Howlin Wolf (Eamonn Walker).  The music of these artists made Chess Records successful, but none could match the success of Chuck Berry (Mos Def), who crossed the charts and became a favorite of both black and white fans, something relatively unheard of in the 1950s.  Chess Records’ star female act was Etta James (Beyonce Knowles), a soul singer who Chess believed could cross the charts into pop.

            But despite all of their success, the singers and musicians at Chess Records had their issues.  Muddy Waters was known for his partying, excessive spending and for his women.  Little Walter was heavily into substance abuse and often became involved in violent disputes.  Chuck Berry’s downfall came in the form of under-aged women.  Etta James had some serious personal issues of her own, eventually pushing her towards substance abuse as a means to escape her life.

            In addition to their personal woes, whenever the musicians and singers asked about royalties from their singles and albums, they were met with the response that their Cadillacs and other perks cost the company money and they represented royalties earned.  The music these artists created was often used by other performers not with the Chess label, sparking much controversy.  Payola was the name of the game back then and often people in the radio industry were given rights to songs in exchange for play time on their radio stations.

            While Cadillac Records may not be perfectly accurate in its telling of the tale of Chess Records, the movie does shed light on many of the hardships faced by musicians at that time.  Many artists were signed on for mere pennies, the rights to their music and their records solely belonging to the company they signed on to perform for.  Records became hits based on how willing the company was to pay for their play.  The artists performing on, writing the songs and creating the music for these records received some pay, but it was really the record companies that grew fat on the fruits of their labor.

            The movie shows us that, although it seemed that Leonard Chess had a great heart and supreme vision in his selection of artists and their niche, he was not an angel.  Just in the way he came into the money to create Chess Records, the audience is given an idea as to just how ambitious and ruthless Leonard Chess could be.

            Though I expected Adrien Brody, Jeffrey Wright, Eamonn Walker and Cedric the Entertainer to perform well, I had no idea how the other actors in this film would be.  I did know from a past experience just how bad Beyonce’s acting abilities could get, but in this film, Beyonce Knowles seems like the perfect choice to portray Etta James.  It would seem that Knowles’ acting abilities have improved over the years, perfectly expressing the tough exterior undermined by the secret vulnerability that was Etta James.  Mos Def, an artist known more for his music than for his acting, was terrific as Chuck Berry.  Columbus Short was beyond criticism in his emotional recreation of the rise and fall of Little Walter. 

            The soundtrack of this movie is phenomenal and I can’t wait to get my hands on it.  Each of the actors chosen for the roles in this film do a credible job performing the songs of the artists they portrayed.  I loved the music of that era and found myself singing along with most of the songs.

            I found Cadillac Records to be an extremely enjoyable film.  The acting was surprisingly good, the story was enjoyable, albeit not completely accurate and the music was outstanding.  The film offers the audience an inside view of what it was like for black artists in the 1950s dealing with segregation laws and crooked record deals, doing what they must in an effort to get their music to be heard.  Cadillac Records received numerous award nominations for screenplay, cast and outstanding motion picture and every one of those nominations was well-deserved.  It didn’t receive much hype while it was in the box office, but Cadillac Records is definitely a movie worth checking out.


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