Musical biopics have become a popular film genre over the past several years. Films like Ray, Dreamgirls, and Walk the Line have all been critically acclaimed. When you talk about music from the 1950s, most people will almost always automatically think of Motown. If you said the name “Chess Records,” the majority of music fans would not know what you are talking about, despite the fact that music from Chess Records came out around the same time as Motown. But say the names Etta James, Chuck Berry, and Muddy Waters, and almost every music fan will know who you are talking about. Most don’t know that all of the aforementioned names actually got their start from Chicago’s Chess Records. This is the subject of the latest musical biopic to be released on the big screen, Cadillac Records.
Cadillac Records is all about the rise and fall of Chess Records, created just after the Second World War in Chicago by Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody). Chess was the ambitious son of Polish immigrants, who promoted a roster of young black performers, who were mostly from the South. They included Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker), Chuck Berry (Mos Def) and Etta James (BeyoncÃ© Knowles), with Big Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer) acting as narrator. They started out directing their work at black audiences, appearing on charts and radio stations specializing in race music, before crossing over to perform for and sell records to general audiences in the late 1950s.
The subject of this film is definitely unique. The untold story of the birth of the Blues in the United States is an excellent subject for a film. It’s too bad that the majority of this film is filled with biopic stereotypes that we have seen in all of the other musical biopics before this one, and was even parodied in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. This is not a true accurate history lesson of Chess Records and the famous artists it helped make a name for. Almost all of the most fascinating facts from this era have been cut from this film, and we are left melodrama and tragedy. There is a brief commentary on race relations in rock ‘n roll music from this era, but not enough to make this film as good as it could have been.
What does work in this film, though, are the performances. Adrian Brody gets the most screen time as Leonard Chess, but this isn’t one of his his better performances. He is often outshined by Jeffrey Wright, Eamonn Walker, Mos Def, and Beyonce Knowles as the artists Chess scammed. All the stories of these characters are interesting to watch, even if they don’t have the last name of James or Berry. The music in this film is great as well, and most would be surprised to know that all of these actors did their own music for this film. Most of the time it is hard to differentiate between the original recordings and the new recordings.
But in the end, Cadillac Records is a familiar tale of sex and drugs and rock ‘n roll. The true-life account from this era might have been a better film as a documentary. However, everyone involved in this film wanted Cadillac Records to be a drama, so what we end up with is a melodramatic one. The performances and music are great and worth watching this film just for that. Still, while it may not be the best biopic around, Cadillac Records is entertaining enough. It just could have been so much better.
The video included is available in widescreen color presented at 2:35 aspect ratio, which is enhanced for 16:9 TVs. The quality is above average with grain kept to a minimum. The colors seem true to the story being told on the screen as well. So no real problems here.
The audio included is available in either English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround sound, Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround sound, or French Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround sound. There are subtitles available in English, Spanish, and French as well. The dialogue and music come out loud and clear, so no major problems here either. But like the video quality, the audio quality is pretty average.
Audio Commentary –
There is a full-length audio commentary with director, Darnell Martin. There is lots of information here, and it’s also a little more entertaining than most “director-only” commentaries.
“Playing Chess: The Making of Cadillac Records” Featurette –
This runs 26 minutes and it tries to put the film in context of the period and musicians depicted in the film. The majority of the cast shares their enthusiasm for the project and the opportunity to be a part of it all.
“Once Upon a Blues: Cadillac Records by Design” Featurette – This runs 15 minutes and it explores the costume and set design of the film. It focuses on the three-decade period the movie spanned and the challenges it posed for reconstructing the costumes and set designs.
Deleted Scenes –
There are 5 scenes that didn’t make the final cut of the film that total 5 minutes. These scenes deal mostly with studio and business difficulties and a nightclub casualty. None of it is “must-watch” material, though.
Cadillac Records is entertaining enough to recommend a rental for anyone, but this film is nothing special. So don’t go out of your way to see it, but you won’t be sorry if you spent money watching it.
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment presents Cadillac Records. Directed and Written by Darnell Martin. Starring Adrien Brody, Beyonce Knowles, Columbus Short, Gabrielle Union, Jeffrey Wright, Mos Def, Eamonn Walker, Cedric the Entertainer, and Emmanuelle Chriqui. Running time: 109 minutes. Rated R. Released on DVD: March 10, 2009. Available at Amazon.com.