Any one of the seven main characters featured in writer/director Darnell Martin's 2008 blues biopic Cadillac Records could have garnered their own film. The life of rock & roll icon Chuck Berry alone, played here by the charmingly sly and underutilized Mos Def, includes enough musical innovation and run-ins with the law to fill several cinematic installments. Instead, Martin chooses to detail the rise to prominence of the legendary Chicago-based Chess Records label founded in 1950 by producer Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody) and featuring his roster of influential blues artists, including guitarist/vocalist Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), harmonica player Little Walter (Columbus Short), guitarist/vocalist Howlin' Wolf (Eamonn Walker), and singer Etta James (Beyoncé Knowles).
The story, told through voice-over narration from Cedric the Entertainer in an understated and folksy performance as Chess bassist and musical mastermind Willie Dixon, begins in the '40s and is a basic American dream fable in which Chess, a Polish immigrant, goes from being a bar owner and record-label huckster to one of the first rock & roll impresarios. At the same time, Dixon tells us how Waters, discovered by musicologist Alan Lomax on a plantation in Mississippi, goes from being an acoustic country bumpkin to an urban guitar-slinger. Eventually, Chess and Waters cross paths, pay off several disc jockeys to get the records they record played on the radio, and use their earnings to open the Chess Records studio. The rest is musical history as we see how the success of other Chess artists like Chuck Berry helped integrate the segregated music audiences of the '50s, kick-starting the rock & roll era.
Never mind that Chess founded the label with his brother, a character missing from the film. Never mind that Chess, played with a romantic dewy passion by Brody, was by most accounts a hard-ass in business and life who never paid his musicians their fair share of royalties -- a point never made explicit in the film. Never mind that while having crafted a film with a multi-character approach, Martin does not include numerous other influential Chess artists, such as Bo Diddley, Gene Ammons, Buddy Guy, and Otis Rush, just to name a few. Never mind, because any in-the-know blues aficionado will find Cadillac Records -- named after Chess' penchant for giving Cadillac cars to his musicians instead of actually paying them -- a historically suspect picture of the Chess Records legend.
We never get a real sense of what made these recordings so different or revolutionary. Part of the problem is that re-recorded versions of songs by the actors were used in the film, with vastly mixed results that never match the ferocity and excitement of the original tracks. Also, although Martin doesn't give a sanitized view of these hard-living, often cruel individuals, her script feels underwritten and so basic that the actors often seem to be mugging and hamming it up onscreen just to fill up the dead air. Rather than real characters, we get a shoddy series of bad wigs, cheesy aging makeup, and an uneven tone that wobbles between light humor and awkward vulgarity.
Surely many blues musicians of the '40s, '50s, and '60s were also boozers, womanizers, and violent criminals, but, as the film has too many individuals to deal with, we never get more than a thumbnail sketch of their personal lives. As a result, such broad characterizations seem more like negative stereotypes of blues musicians rather than the actual people. At one point, after an extended and hedonistic performance montage, a drunken Waters returns home to see his heretofore not pregnant wife sitting on the bed with a child in her lap. Obviously dumbfounded, Waters, as if voicing our confusion, remarks, "Where'd that baby come from?"
Similarly confusing is how Chess could record such unconventional and raw talents who played loudly over each other and moved about while recording in the studio. Purportedly, Chess simply cut out a lot of musician's tracks without telling them -- an unethical move not even hinted at here. Rather, we get Chess dismissing such concerns to his sound man with a tossed off, "Don't worry about it."
Then there is the blinding specter of Beyoncé Knowles, who undoubtedly hoped to have finally landed the Oscar-winning role she must have felt escaped her in the 2006 musical Dreamgirls. As the haughty, soulful James, Knowles lays it on almost as thick as her garish green eyeliner and peroxide-blonde wig. It's a bad performance made worse as the film shudders to a halt for several extended and static in-studio musical sequences obviously intended for fans who've only shown up to see Beyoncé. There are also several cringe-inducing Oscar-bait monologues stemming from James' issues over having had a prostitute for a mother and pool shark Minnesota Fats for an absentee father that will do little to endear Knowles to the Academy.
One can only wonder what her fans will make of her pre-coital, post-heroin overdose love scene with Brody. In the scene, Chess attempts to talk some sense into a strung-out James, who is on the verge of getting her house repossessed. Chess comes on sexually to James and offers to put her house in his name so she won't lose it. If the scene works at all, it's only because, as it may be an attempt by Martin to show how Chess took advantage of people during their weak moments, it comes off as creepy and opportunistic. Ultimately, much the same can be said for the film.