“Cadillac Records,” the story of the revolutionary Chicago record label Chess, begins in 1941, with Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright) squinting in a cotton field in a Mississippi sun. Here’s how the next five minutes go, almost scene by scene: Alan Lomax arrives at Muddy’s sharecropper shack to record him. Muddy, hearing himself for the first time, knows he has a gift and follows the train tracks north. Muddy works his slide on an acoustic guitar on a sidewalk in Chicago; passersby scoff. “Don’t nobody want to hear that,” one says. A sassy woman (Gabrielle Union) notices Muddy from a second floor window. He flirts with her from the street. They have sex. She lets him plug in an amp from her apartment. People crowd to see his amplified slide. He’s a success.
“Walk Hard,” Will Ferrell’s parody of the music biopic, failed largely, but it was right to try. It’s a subgenre laden with cliches. The easily recognizable formula follows: The early struggle, the meteoric rise (always with a montage of spinning records and rising chart positions) and the precipitous fall (inevitably sex, drug or alcohol related). Emblematic scenes replace lives.
“Cadillac Records” isn’t a biopic. Worse, it’s an ensemble portrait of a half dozen musicians, including Chuck Berry (Mos Def), Etta James (Beyonce Knowles), Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker), Little Walter (Columbus Short) and Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer), all of whom record for Polish immigrant Leonard Chess (Adrian Brody), at different times, from 1950 to 1968. Even though the plot lingers in the ’50s, that’s a staggering amount of time to cover, and a host of innovators, most of whom deserve their own film alone.
To squeeze it all in, screenwriter/director Darnell Martin uses Moments of Great Significance to stand in for a narrative: Muddy Waters meets Little Walter on the street. Teens segregated, by cops and a divider, dance their way into integration at a Chuck Berry concert. Etta James asks Little Walter for heroin.
The paternalism of Chess, who rewards his stars with new Cadillacs (thus the title), but fails to tell them they’re coming out of their paychecks, and how the stars deal with him does serve as a bit of a unifying factor. Muddy strikes an uneasy reliance on Chess. Little Walter crashes his Caddy in the Chess office. Etta James melts in Chess’ arms.
Music geeks will howl at that imagined romance (surely a ploy to a attract a broader audience based on the star power of Adrien Brody and Beyonce, not coincidentally the film’s biggest stars) and other liberties Martin takes in the film. Perhaps as another nod to Beyonce’s glitter, there’s footage of her recording “I’d Rather Go Blind” in Chess Studios, when the song was actually one of the signature tracks of Muscle Shoal’s FAME Studios.
For all its deep flaws, most of the film’s stars flourish in underwritten roles. Wright doesn’t look much like Muddy Waters, but he skillfully inhabits him, in all his charisma and self-doubt. With piercing eyes and that trademark growl, Walker offers a frighteningly good, if underused, Howlin’ Wolf. Ditto for Mos Def, who brings a sly congeniality to Chuck Berry. Even Beyonce in that silly Tina Turner starter wig wrenches out some believable emotion.
Though it’s becoming increasingly common for actors to convincingly mimic iconic songs in big-budget biopics, it wasn’t always that way, and it’s still refreshing to see songs done so well here, especially, unsurprisingly, by Beyonce, who you know is famous for something other than acting. Even more surprising, in a film about mostly Southern musicians, there’s nary a terrible accent to be found. Paired with the music, that’s almost reason enough to see the film. Almost.