Film Reviews

Cadillac Records Darnell Martin

Rating - 6/10

The story of Chess Records is in part the story of postwar America, its mythology and its history. Founded by two Polish immigrant siblings, Philip and Leonard, Chess became a bastion for the burgeoning postwar (African-) American popular music scene in Chicago.

Like the three other major postwar labels (Sun, Stax and Motown), Chess was an urban affair, an institution engrained into the fabric of its ethnically diverse South Side Chicago enclave. Yet, this cradle of the postwar Chicago Blues scene had its musical roots in the Deep South, a world then still deeply embedded in Reconstruction era racial politics and cultural mores. 

The melding of these two distinct worlds- urban North and rural South- resulted in Chess’ signature sound: electric, emotive, raw and primal. For longtime television director Darnell Martin, it is this fusion and its successive musical tapestries that sparks and enlivens her musical biography of Chess Records entitled Cadillac Records.
Named for Chess’ penchant for providing Cadillac automobiles in lieu of paying actual royalties on hit records to his musicians, the film is a sprawling affair. Given the size of the label’s musical legacy, Martin’s attempt to graft its key components onto an extensive tissue is a noteworthy, yet flawed product.
Arguably, any one of the label’s key roster figures- Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Etta James or Chuck Berry- could have a vehicle of their own. Nevertheless, Martin tries to incorporate the central myths, half-truths and factual legends associated with Chess Records into her film; producing an amalgamated semi-historical account that whilst able to clutch a sweaty grip on the label’s music, fails to grasp Chess Records' historical socio-cultural importance or coolly navigate through the Chicago-based label's micro-history.
For example, one of Martin’s strangest maneuvers is to completely eliminate label co-founder Philip Chess, who alongside his former nightclub-owning brother Leonard (played here by a somnambulant Adrien Brody) formed the label from the ashes of Aristocrat Records in 1950. Ironically, Leonard Chess never truly becomes the film’s focal point, but rather a shadowy Svengali figure continually lurking in the background; whose intentions and motives are sadly lost in the myriad of other personal stories competing for space and attention.
Consequently, the film's narrative becomes bogged down and splintered as Martin tries to relay the various personal tragedies of figures such as Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), Etta James (Beyonce Knowles), Chuck Berry (Mos Def) and Little Walter (Columbus Short). Perhaps a thorough examination of these figures within the Chess narrative could have worked within the format of a multi-episode TV film. But within the film’s 109 minute running time, there is barely enough room for the characters to breathe and grow. Martin’s excited and aching desire to tell so many stories, results in a series of outlines and sketches, rather than fully-developed figures; as characters promptly drift in-and-out of the narrative without warning.
Martin’s adherence to the now standard musical biopic narrative arc is also problematic, particularly when the director tries to bind personal and corporate moments of ascension and collapse into the various fractured careers of Chess’ extensive roster. Consequentially, the film dithers in its attempt to capture the label’s musical-thematic elements: the evolution from electrified “sharecropper music” to rock n’ roll. Fortunately, there are plenty of dignified replications of period performances in perspired nightclubs to fill-in the gaps. However, there is no great attempt to understand what this music meant to people like Chess, his artists and audiences: both white and black populations as mutual and distinctive entities.
For example, we see how white audiences became enthralled with the duck-walking Berry, but we get little insight into how they reacted to the sinister growl of Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker) or what beguiled northern black audiences to Muddy Waters’ electric blues. Even, Chess’ own musical ambitions and thoughts are ambiguous in Cadillac Records.
Nevertheless, where Martin does contextually succeed is in demonstrating the musical co-option and entrepreneurial exploitation of black artists by white musicians (like The Beach Boys with their note-for-note Berry rip-off “Surfin USA”) and white entrepreneurs (like Leonard Chess). Although, not given the critical eye this subject matter could have been given from a documentarian, Chess’ own manipulative and deceitful business practices toward his artists are given ample light in Cadillac Records. But certainly this angle could have been dissected in greater detail had Martin decided to build the film around Chess himself, rather than his African-American artistic cadre. Noticeably, Cadillac Records operates with no genuine narrative hook, but rather as a series of riffs.
These riffs come in the form of the wealth of strong performances representing the key figures in the Chess family. Frequently surging and hypnotic, these lively encapsulations are the crown jewels of Martin’s Cadillac Records. Built around narration from Chess’ principal songwriter Willie Dixon’s (portrayed by a ridiculously underused Cedric the Entertainer), the film’s performances are its lifeblood.
Tapping into a rich vein of acting form, Cadillac Records features a remarkable array of actors principally led by Jeffrey Wright’s stellar metamorphosis into Muddy Waters, Eamonn Walker’s brooding Howlin’ Wolf and Cleveland Short’s maniacal interpretation of Little Walter. Although, not as effective as the aforementioned performers, Mos Def’s and Beyonce Knowles each offer humorous and downtrodden efforts, as Chuck Berry and Etta James respectively.
Chronicling the rise and fall of Chicago’s Chess Records, Darnell Martin’s Cadillac Records is clearly a loving, but flawed attempt at capturing an American cultural landmark. Despite an array of solid, evocative performances and a sterling soundtrack, Cadillac Records feels too scatterbrained and underdeveloped to properly present and represent the Chess story in a manner appropriate for the socio-cultural weight of the subject matter. Overall, Cadillac Records is mostly a solid greatest hits package, albeit one more contextually muddy than howlin' in its dissection of the Chess legacy and its historical milieu. It’s not a film for the ages, but it will undoubtedly inspire and entice Chess neophytes to begin discovering the label’s heaving back catalogue.