Fanciful Bio-Pic Revisits Rise of Legendary Record Company
Cadillac Records (2008)
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Rated R for sexuality, ethnic slurs and pervasive profanity
Running time: 109 minutes
Studio: TriStar Pictures
DVD Release Date: March 10, 2009
Film Review by Kam Williams
Excellent (3.5 stars)
When Lejzor and Fiszel Czyz arrived in the U.S. from Poland in 1928, their parents changed the family surname to "Chess’ and started calling their little boys "Leonard" and "Phil." By the late Forties, the ambitious siblings had already achieved the American Dream, having established themselves in the liquor business while opening up a number of bars in the black community on the South Side of Chicago.
The bulk of the performers booked in their nightclubs were musicians from Mississippi who played the Delta blues. Recognizing the commercial potential of the exploiting the popular genre, the enterprising brothers founded a record company with such promising artists as Muddy Waters, Howlin" Wolf, Little Walter, Bo Diddley, Sonny Boy Williamson and John Lee Hooker.
Thus, was born Chess Records, an industry giant which would make a mark on the music business for the next quarter of a century. Over that time span, the company would also venture into R&B and jazz, jumpstarting the careers of everyone from Chuck Berry to Etta James to James Moody to Lou Donaldson to Yusef Lateef to Aretha Franklin.
Obviously, distilling the rise and fall of Chess into an entertaining, two-hour melodrama meant that the movie would merely tend to focus on the more sensationalize aspects of its past. Consequently, many of the company’s less colorful and less controversial characters, including some cultural icons, ended up either minimized or ignored entirely, in favor of the development of more salacious storylines.
Written and directed by Darnell Martin, Cadillac Records presents Leonard (Adrien Brody) as the driving force behind Chess, while marginalizing Phil (Shiloh Fernandez) as little more than a historical footnote. This Hollywood version of Leonard is a flamboyant creep who roamed around the South on the Chitlin’ Circuit in a Cadillac convertible in search of gullible black talent so eager to be famous that they were willing to enter into bad contracts.
Apparently, he gave each sucker a key to a flashy Caddy as a signing bonus, but would then subsequently cheat them of earned royalty payments when their songs became hits. Speaking of cheating, Len was unfaithful to his wife (Emmanuelle Chriqui), especially with his heroin-addicted protégé, Etta James (Beyoncé).
Besides that tawdry love triangle, other compelling subplots revolve around hot-headed Little Walter (Columbus Short) who has run-ins with an impersonator, with the police, and with his band mate Muddy Waters’ (Jeffrey Wright) over a woman (Gabrielle Union), before finally meeting his match in a bar fight. Then, there’s Chuck Berry (Mos Def) who, at the height of his fame, draws a stiff prison sentence for sleeping with a minor.
More memorable than these kinky goings-on are the classic tunes not lip-synched but actually sung by the gifted cast. Highlights include Beyonce’s rendition of "At Last," "Maybelline" by Mos Def, "Hoochie Coochie Man" by Jeffrey Wright, "My Babe" by Columbus Short and "Smokestack Lightnin’" by Eamonn Walker as Howlin" Wolf. Overall, Cadillac Records provides a nostalgic enough trip down memory lane to overlook the poetic license taken with the facts, if not the glaring omission of Aretha who recorded her very first album with Chess in 1956.
How about a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T?
Columbus Short The Cadillac Records Interview