This ‘Cadillac' Not Top of the Line

“Cadillac Records” focuses on Leonard Chess, the founder and co-owner of Chess Records, and his cultivation of a stable of legendary blues performers.

This included Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), Etta James (Beyoncé Knowles), Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker), Chuck Berry (Mos Def) and Little Walter (Columbus Short). Though uncredited contemporaneously, Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer) produced many of the recordings for the Chicago-based company. Chess Records became pivotal force in bringing the blues genre to the attention of mainstream America.

At the outset of “Cadillac Records,” Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody) is operating the Macomba Lounge, a club on Chicago’s predominantly black South Side. When Muddy Walters performs there one night, gun shots ring out. The resulting melee forces the club to close down for the night. Undaunted by the setback, Chess tracks down Waters and signs him onto his fledgling label. Back then, white radio stations avoided playing so-called “race music.” Chess overcame the reticence of deejays by paying them cash bribes. It was as a result of this unscrupulous practice that many white listeners became exposed to blues music for the first time.

“Cadillac Records” isn’t shy about portraying the sexual promiscuity of Muddy Waters as he cheated on his wife (Gabrielle Union), the heroin addiction of Etta James, the arrest of Chuck Berry at the height of his popularity for transporting a minor across state lines for immoral purposes, or the alcoholism of Little Walter. On other salient issues, the film equivocates in a way that diminishes it.

The film draws its title from Chess’ penchant for giving a brand new Cadillac to a performer, when they recorded their first hit. Was this a gesture of genuine generosity as it might appear? In the alternative, was Chess disingenuously pandering to the ego of his stars, rather than paying them the royalties to which they were entitled?

“Cadillac Records” includes documentary footage from the ’50s, depicting the plight of African-Americans and the advent of the Civil Rights movement. The film recurrently depicts cotton fields in the rural South, where African-Americans are stooped in low paying, back-breaking labor. Collectively, these provide a sense of time and place, while raising some other provocative questions. Was Chess committed to the betterment of African-Americans or was he an exploiter of talented, albeit unsophisticated, people of color? If Chess improved the lifestyles of his performers, even as he was cheating them, to what extent should this be considered as a mitigating factor?

Writer/director, Darnell Martin, seems uncertain where he stands on these issues or how to treat them dramatically. It is as if he can’t decide whether to lionize Chess or treat him as a highly flawed individual. In constructing his narrative, Martin makes many curious decisions. It glosses over the fact that Chess, née Lejzor Czyz, was born in Poland and didn’t move to the U.S. until he was 11. Bo Diddley, a prominent member of the Chess Records roster, is disconcertingly excluded from the film as if he never existed.

“Cadillac Records” is marred by its panoply of conceptual and narrative flaws. It is redeemed by some strong acting and compelling musical renditions. Eamonn Walker has charisma to burn, scowling and growling, as if he were channeling Howlin’ Wolf. The music is a delight. In particular, Beyoncé Knowles’ rendition of the Etta James’ classic, “At Last,” replete with symphonic accompaniment, is a show stopper.

“Cadillac Records” offers a superficial treatment of its subject matter. It spurns important issues that deserve exploration. The film is a lackluster biopic of Leonard Chess. Moreover, it fails to convey the historic role that his label and its performers had on American music. Nevertheless, for sheer entertainment, “Cadillac Records” is still worth seeing. 

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