Cadillac Records (2008)
Directed by: Darnell Martin
Starring: Adrien Brody, Jeffrey Wright, Beyoncé Knowles,
Gabrielle Union, Columbus Short, Emmanuelle Chriqui , Cedric
The Entertainer, Dante 'Mos Def' Smith
MPAA rating: R
Run Time: 108 minutes
Cadillac Records is the fictionalized
story of Chicago’s legendary Chess Records, its owner,
Len Chess and some of Chess’ fabulous early stars—Muddy
Waters, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, Chuck Berry and
Cadillac Records surprised me. I expected the music
to be great, and it was. But I didn’t expect the characters
to be so well-developed and the actors to give such masterful
Starting in 1950, Len Chess (and his brother Phil) brought
these talented performers, and many others, out of the constrictions
of segregated “race music” to a wide integrated
young audience who just loved blues and rock & roll and
couldn’t have cared less about the skin color of its
But it wasn’t until 1961 that Etta James’ hit
“At last", with its pleasing back-up violins went
to #2 on the Billboard R&B chart and crossed over the
“color line” to reach #47 on what had been the
all white Billboard Pop Chart. In its own quiet way, the crossover
of Etta James’ beautiful song was a milestone in the
Civil Rights Movement.
Adrien Brody (The Darjeeling Limited, 2007, Hollywoodland,
2006) played Len Chess as a determined, savvy businessman
who nevertheless remained emotionally connected to his artists.
As was common in his rough and tumble world, Chess was happy
to give payola to the DJs and was a bit vague about his stars’
royalties. He gave his artists shiny new Cadillacs whenever
they had a new hit; they were not aware that the cars came
out of their royalties. Then again, most of the musicians
didn’t even have bank accounts.
Jeffrey Wright (W., 2008, Quantum of Solace, 2008)
was outstanding as Muddy Waters and he sang Waters’
songs with raw authenticity.
Muddy Waters, an illiterate Mississippi sharecropper, was
discovered in 1941 when Alan Lomax, the innovative folklorist,
recorded him for Lomax’s Library of Congress collection.
Muddy was an innovator of the electric guitar and a giant
of the blues for almost 40 years. The scores of musicians
he influenced include The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Eric
Clapton, Canned Heat, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, The Allman
Brothers Band, Humble Pie, Paul Rodgers, Brian May and Jeff
Beyoncé Knowles’ (Dream Girls, 2006)
portrayal of Etta James was first rate. Her acting was nuanced
and her singing captured the essence of Etta James. Not an
easy thing to do.
Eamonn Walker’s commanding depiction of Howlin’
Wolf shows the broad range that this Shakespearian actor possesses.
Wolf, a superb electric blues guitarist with a self-assured,
menacing presence, was disdainful of Muddy Waters’ reliance
on Len Chess. No advances on royalties for Wolf. He only wanted
what he had earned.
Little Walter, a very young and very talented blues harmonica
player, was well acted by Columbus Short (Quarantine,
2007, Stomp the Yard, 2006). Little Walter was violent
and made somewhat crazy by drinks and drugs. It must have
been difficult for Short to bring out Little Walter’s
belligerent affect as well as his occasional softer inner
personae, but he succeeded.
We didn’t see enough of Chuck Berry in Cadillac
Records. He was, and still is, the most commercially
successful of the Chess Records stars. He was savvy enough
to write big hits for the white teenage market (School
Days, Sweet Little Sixteen), but he is notoriously difficult
in his business affairs. He refused to allow his songs to
be used in Cadillac Records. The few Berry hits in
the film are owned by Marshall Chess, Len’s son.
Hip-hop’s Dante 'Mos Def' Smith (Sixteen Blocks,
2006) performed Berry’s hits surprisingly well
and had the duck walk down, but his part was quite small,
as Berry was serving time for taking underage girls across
state lines for most of the film.
The Chess artists had come up from the rural south to make
it big in Chicago, and they were unaccustomed to life in the
urban North. They carried guns and knives, and used them;
they went to jail on real and trumped up charges, used drugs
and alcohol to excess, gambled and had numerous affairs. But
they created memorable music that still moves us.
As an old time rock & roller who first listened to Chess
Records’ artists on a tinny AM radio many years ago,
it is a surprise and pleasure to see these remarkable performers
being celebrated. Cadillac Records has impressive
performances by multi-talented actors, heart, soul, and of
course, music that just won’t stop.
Some of Chess Records’ recording stars were:
Sonny Boy Williamson II
John Lee Hooker
Clarence "Frogman" Henry
Sugar Pie DeSanto
Johnny "Guitar" Watson
Big Bill Broonzy and Washboard Sam
Dave "Baby" Cortez
Emily S. Mendel
©Emily S. Mendel 2008 All Rights Reserved