Parts of “Cadillac Records” surface as warm reminders of a timeless musical era. Most of “Cadillac Records” comes across as a miserable “Saturday Night Live” skit without the benefit of a sleep-deprived audience to feign approval. A musical bio-pic of the famed Chess Records blues factory of Chicago, “Cadillac” is a frustratingly thin depiction of songwriting euphoria and industry deception; the film preferring to convulse recklessly to paint a crude mural of legendary artists when an old fashion heapin’ of focus was in order.
Trying to avoid the financial misery of his father, Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody) opened a bar in a predominately African-American neighborhood, attracting the attention of struggling blues performers, including Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright) and Little Walter (Columbus Short). Sensing a perfect moment to strike, the aspiring mogul started his own record label, opening the Chess Records Studio in 1950. Using artists like Waters, Walter, Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer), Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker, who practically fogs up the lens in his quest to come off intense), and Chuck Berry (Mos Def), Chess built his company on a stack of top records, encouraging radio integration and the sweep of rock and roll. Paying his talent in Cadillacs and favors, Chess endured a turbulent ride of success, and with the introduction of Etta James (Beyonce Knowles), Chess found his ingénue, threatening the integrity of his unique reward system.
While based on a true story, it’s difficult to believe much of anything writer/director Darnell Martin (helming her first theatrical release since 1994’s “I Like It Like That”) is dramatizing in “Cadillac.” It’s an overheated, melodramatic motion picture, on the prowl to locate the panty-removing passion of the blues to use as a storytelling guide, buttress by a parade of famous names and their celebrated music. Martin’s heart is in the right place, returning the history of rock and blues to its rightful owners (a topic the film is very diligent about), but she’s obsessed with the sexual proclivities of the subjects, not always their state of mind. The bedroom antics fatigue the film to a full stop.
Perhaps the story of Chess Records couldn’t be told without the presence of groupies lusting after their blues idols, yet Martin doesn’t probe much beyond the sheets and the limelight, encouraging her cast to overact in a simplistic, feral manner that suggests “Cadillac” was possibly a silent film at one point during production. Martin’s only interested in surface details: Chess’s payola dealings, the volatile stable of hitmakers, and blue dialogue that would make Andrew Dice Clay blush. Not much is made of Chess’s financial troubles beyond whispers, and the psychological profile of the Chess lineup doesn’t step beyond the obvious offering of guns, women, money, and drugs.
Further damage is inflicted by the soundtrack, which has been rerecorded by the actors to lend the film a fuller audio punch. Technically, it makes sense. Artistically, it’s a crime. It’s one thing for Joaquin Phoenix to mimic Johnny Cash for “Walk the Line,” but Knowles attempting to outdo Etta James? One of the greatest singers of all time? Her performance is already plump with clunky body language and grating hysteria, there’s no need for Knowles to place her own stamp on a handful of musical landmarks. Because Knowles also co-produced the picture, there’s more than enough room made for her vocal grandstanding, taking needed time away from Wright, who steals the film with his mumbled, delightfully unrepentant portrayal of Waters.
A cursory glance at the history of Leonard Chess post-screening reveals “Cadillac Records” to be more of an romanticize account of an idolmaker than a truthful one, and the epilogue of the film reveals some fascinating legal steps the artists took to reclaim their work from Caucasian theft. If only the feature had the nerve to address the grit of Chess Records instead of the soap opera.