Film and TV

Cadillac Records

First, a key spoiler: Cadillac Records is not the story of Chess Records, the blues label started in Chicago in 1950 by brothers Leonard and Phil Chess that featured among its stable of artists Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry and Etta James, plus many others who birthed rock and roll. The movie is certainly being marketed as a Chess tell-all; the soundtrack, due December 5, counts among its offerings Chess standards recut by the film's actors, including Jeffrey Wright's laughably slight version of Muddy Waters's "Hoochie Coochie Man," Mos Def's coy, sly take on Chuck Berry's "No Particular Place to Go," and three tracks by Beyoncé Knowles, whose purr never comes close to approximating Etta James's growl.

But in this version of the tale — told in flashback, with overwrought narration provided by Cedric the Entertainer as Willie Dixon — there is no Phil Chess, only Leonard, played by an actor, Adrien Brody, who, with his anachronistically tousled hair and Forever Fonzie wardrobe, looks as much like Leonard Chess as he does, well, Howlin' Wolf. In fact, Phil, who was also left out of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame proceedings upon Leonard's induction as a pioneer in 1987, is never mentioned at all. There's no Bo Diddley, either, a woeful oversight for a film in need of his hubris and humor. Still, the parade of famous faces playing famous faces overstuffs the movie with subjects deserving of features but instead treated as footnotes. It's all too much and not enough.

Most gallingly, for a film "based on a true story," there doesn't seem to be a single fact contained within writer-director Darnell Martin's ham-fisted fiction, which renders pre-rock musical history as yet another downer soap opera bloated with smack and sex and premature corpses, as though that's all that defined the period and the people. For all its copious flaws, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story perfectly nailed the trajectory of every single rockudrama that has tarnished a legend's legend — the big bang turned sad whimper.

Cadillac Records begins with Dixon laying the foundation of the story, introducing us to "one white boy from Chicago" (Chess) and "one sharecropper from Mississippi" (Waters). Chess, a junkyard owner, dreams of opening a nightclub, which he does: the Macomba Lounge. Waters, recorded one day in the field by Alan Lomax (Tony Bentley), reckons he's got a future in the Big City and treads the tracks till he reaches Chicago. Eventually, the two men meet — during a never-happened brawl at the Macomba, instigated by hell-raising harp player Little Walter (Columbus Short) — and form a partnership, then a friendship.

In time, Chess begins assembling his pieces: Howlin' Wolf, played with almost cartoonish ferocity by Eamonn Walker; Dixon, who here comes off as nothing more than a sideman; Chuck Berry, rendered as a savvy country boy who liked to show gals his ding-a-ling in the back seat of his car; and James, who already had a career before Chess signed the tormented torch singer in 1960, not that you'd know it here. Also along for the ride are Chess and Waters's women, Revetta (Entourage's Emmanuelle Chriqui) and Geneva (Gabrielle Union), respectively, who do little more than quietly frown and tolerate their husbands' myriad dalliances.

The story is too fragmented to decipher — a sloppily arranged sequence of sketches that's like a who's who without the why. Martin tells the story elliptically, with the occasional bold proclamation inserted here and there to remind us that these small stars are, in fact, portraying larger-than-life musicians whose work would influence generations. But nothing has an impact or leaves a mark, least of all the songs, watered down by actors doing miniature impersonations of giants. No wonder Martin doesn't let the audience hear more than snatches of tunes — save for Knowles's three extended numbers, clearly intended to sell the soundtrack. They're faint echoes of classics, soulless and gutless.

Fabrications in the name of movie myth-making are, of course, expected from a genre that demands condensing lives into a handful of Defining Episodes; all biopics reduce and trivialize. But so egregious are the deficiencies and distortions here that it's almost impossible to discern whether there's anything decent about the moviemaking itself. With everything so wrong, how can there be anything right about Cadillac Records?

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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