Written & Directed by Darnell Martin

Written & Directed by Darnell Martin
Cadillac Records

Sony BMG Film

By Georgetown Fats
January 2009

After taking in a matinee of Darnell Martin’s Cadillac Records, it’s clear Ms. Martin is a fan of blues music, and is deserving of praise for taking on this ambitious project. The story of Chess Records, with its rich history, larger than life characters, and historical significance regarding integration, deserves to be told.

However it is also clear Ms. Martin should have hired a script writer for this project.

Cadillac Records is based around the rise and fall of Leonard Chess and his famous Chess Records Chicago label. Intertwined throughout the movie are story arcs revolving around Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, Chuck Berry, Etta James and Willie Dixon. And this is the main flaw with the film: There are just too many stories to tell within the 108- minute treatment.

Strong actors playing larger than life, but still true, characters can only carry a movie so far. Ms. Martin would have you believe Leonard Chess, played by Adrien Brody, was a one-man success story who came from rough-and-tumble Polish roots as a former scrap yard owner who sold his business to become a record company owner.

I am sure his brother Phil Chess may have some issue with this. Phil is either never factored into the movie, or was left on the cutting room floor. Brady, though compelling with the role, is written as more as a patriarch to his talent stable instead of a man who fed the addictions of his talent to feed his wallet.

Jeffrey Wright as McKinley Morganfield/Muddy Waters also does his best with what was written. Short of digging up and reanimating the great one himself, I am not sure there is another actor who could have done as good a job with the material provided, but Wright’s Morganfield is portrayed as a corporate lackey who introduced the musical world to Little Walter, while introducing Walter to booze - and becoming a failed father figure to him.

Another curious choice with the script is the treatment of Willie Dixon, who is played by Cedric the Entertainer. Instead of playing the more historically accurate “backbone” to Chess Records, Dixon is more of an afterthought. Yes, you read that correctly, the Father of The Blues is relegated to a narrator for the movie. The movie does acknowledge Dixon as the songwriter of “Hoochie Coochie Man,” and brief onscreen credits mention Dixon’s work on behalf of securing royalties for his colleagues, but that’s about it. Cedric the Entertainer is used as nothing more then a narrator.

Also wasted is the tragically comic Columbus Short as Little Walter, and Eamonn Walker’s arresting performance as Howlin’ Wolf. And too much time was spent on a relationship between Etta James, (Beyoncé Knowles) and Brody’s Chess. Beyoncé gives a very pedestrian performance as James. As a singer, Knowles has the pipes to belt out “At Last,” but as an actress she lacks the experience to convey the pain of a troubled James. She looks out of place in a short-cropped blonde wig and prosthetic backside, and is definitely out of place when teamed up with a cast of dramatic actors.

In short, though I realize Cadillac Records is not intended for blues music fans, it is still a very disappointing treatment of a key part of musical and American history. Blues fans not willing to suspend their disbelief will be better spent catching the numerous mistakes within the film, while non-blues fans will be treated to a very glossy look at a tumultuous time. All-in-all, for anyone itching to see Cadillac Records in the theater shoud wait until the DVD is released and hope the disk will come in an extended release.

Here’s to hoping the other Chess Biopic, Who Do you Love, is more factually accurate and focused.


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