Cadillac Records: Directed by Darnell (I Like It Like That) Martin, Starring Beyonce

The new musical extravaganza Cadillac Records is directed by the gifted director Darnell Martin, who made a strong debut in 1994 with I Like It Like That.

Martin has helmed very few features since then, though she has done some TV serials.

The movie offers a good part for the beautiful singer-actress Beyonce Knowles (also credited as producer), who made a splash three years ago in Bill Condon’s Oscar-winning musical movie, “Dreamgirls,” but whose career as a major leading lady has not taken off yet.

A chronicles of the rise of Chess Records and its artists, Cadillac Records feels like a genre picture in both the positive and negative aspects of the term, including all the ingredients we have come to expect from showbiz biopic: sex, violence, drugs, and other forms of abuse.

Set in Chicago in 1950s and the 1960s, the film follows the exciting but turbulent lives of some of America’s greatest musical legends. It tells how the blues became popular, accounting for the rise of rock and roll, at a small dingy bar on the rough South Side of Chicago, circa 1947.

Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody, Oscar-winner for “The Pianist”), an ambitious young Polish immigrant who’s now a bar owner, hires a talented but undisciplined blues combo that includes the quiet and thoughtful guitar prodigy Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright) and the impulsive and more colorful harmonica player Little Walter (Columbus Short). Both idealistic and pragmatic factors motivate Chess: Fascinated by the sound of the music, and eager to cash in on the burgeoning record business, Chess arranges a recording session for Waters. As a result, Waters’ early recordings start moving up the R+B charts and receive extensive playing.

Essentially a decent, conscientious man, Chess treats his musicians like a family. For example, he buys them a luxurious gift, a Cadillac, when they record their first hit record. But soon, the fine line between what’s strictly business and what’s intimately personal gets blurred, causing tensions and conflicts with his talented and increasingly successful artists.

After backing up Muddy on his early recordings, Walter becomes a star in his own right. But his quick rise to fame, combined with his quick temper and loud manner, run him afoul of friends and the law. He also realizes that the only woman he can talk to is Muddy’s girl, Geneva (Gabrielle Union), who struggles to remain loyal, despite Muddy’s poorly concealed affairs.

Enter Big Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer), a songwriter and bandleader who’s a key member of the Chess Records family, and Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker), an intense, proud blues singer who becomes Muddy’s musical rival.

It takes time, circumstances, luck, and obstacles for a Chess artist to finally “cross over” into the mainstream, namely white, America. Chuck Berry (Mos Def), a slender guy from St. Louis. As Def plays him, he comes across as a talented musician, whose dynamic “duck walk” and catchy country-tinged tunes mark the birth of rock-and-roll.

Melodrama kicks in, when Berry is arrested and jailed at the height of his career, forcing Chess to find another talented performer with cross-over appeal, singer Etta James (Beyonce Knowles), an emotionally abused woman whose vulnerability touches Chess in unexpected ways.

Once Dranell Martin, who also scripted the movie, establishes the rise to fame, she follows generic conventions to show the inevitable, predictable decline, familiar to us from countless showbiz bios. As rock-and-roll grows more popular, the Chess artists find themselves revered by a new generation of musicians. However, in time, each one of them has succumbed to the temptations of booze, women, and the high life. Predictably, their addictions take their toll.

Despite structural weaknesses, most of the acting is good. Martin has always been good with her thespians, and here she has coaxed great turns from Jeffrey Wright as Waters and Eamonn Walters as Wolf. Always a reliable performer, Wright is unfairly relegated to supporting roles in major Hollywood films, as evident in the current James Bond flick, “Quantum of Solace,” but here he assumes center stage with verve and gusto.

“Cadillac Records” ends on a relatively upbeat note, showing that despite personal and professional tragedies, what counts the most and lasts the most is the buoyant music itself. Good work almost always survives its creators’ lives. In the late 1960s, Leonard Chess gets out of the record business, but the exciting blues, guided by his spirited personality, would continue to live on and to shape the sensibility of a new generation of musicians and the taste of a new generation of audiences.

Cast

Leonard Chess – Adrien Brody
Muddy Waters – Jeffrey Wright
Geneva Wade – Gabrielle Union
Little Walter – Columbus Short
Willie Dixon – Cedric the Entertainer
Revetta Chess – Emmanuelle Chriqui
Howlin’ Wolf – Eamonn Walker
Chuck Berry – Mos Def
Etta James – Beyonce Knowles

Credits

Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Sony Music Film and Parkwood Pictures presentation of a Sony Music Film production.
Produced by Andrew Lack, Sofia Sondervan. Executive producers: Beyonce Knowles, Marc Levin.
Co-producer: Petra Hoebel.
Directed: written by Darnell Martin.
Camera: Anastas Michos.
Editor, Peter C. Frank; music, Terence Blanchard.
Music supervisor, Beth Amy Rosenblatt; executive music producer, Marshall Chess; music producer, Syeve Jordan.
Production designer: Linda Burton.
Art director: Nick Locke.
Set decorator: David Schlesinger.
Costume designer: Johnetta Boone.
Sound: Jeff Pullman, Stuart Deutsch.
Visual effects supervisor: Robert Lopuski.

MPAA Rating: R.
Running time: 107 Minutes.