Review by Gordon Justesen
Brody, Jeffrey Wright, Gabrielle Union, Columbus Short, Cedric the Entertainer,
Emmanuelle Chriqui, Eamonn Walker, Mos Def, Beyonce Knowles
Director: Darnell Martin
Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Features: See Review
Length: 108 Minutes
Release Date: March 10, 2009
“Welcome to Cadillac Records. Stay around long enough, everyone get one.”
You learn something new everyday. Despite my knowledge of such legendary musicians as Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Howlin’ Wolf and Etta James, I never knew that each of those artists had their careers launched thanks to a record label in South Michigan called Chess Records. Writer/director Darnell Martin’s latest film, Cadillac Records, is a music-infused period piece that chronicles how the studio came to be the birth place for so many renowned blues artists.
The story is told from the perspective of Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody), a Jewish immigrant who had an eye for musical talent, particularly in the rising genre of the time; blues music. Being that it was the early 1950s, the country was going through an unfortunately high level of racism. But Leonard was a rare breed, a white man who saw through racial boundaries and wasn’t afraid to admit it.
While working at a nightclub, Leonard crosses paths with Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), a sharecropper in Mississippi before making his way up north to Chicago. When Muddy comes across two street musicians, Little Walter (Columbus Short) and Jimmy Rodgers (Kevin Mambo), who join forces and become known as the “All Star Trio”. They crash Leonard’s club, and he is more than blown away by the music being played before him.
Before long, Leonard goes from nightclub owner to record producer overnight. He takes Muddy’s music to numerous radio stations, and even bribes one DJ to play it on the air. The record becomes a hit, and Muddy soon signs a contract with Leonard.
At around the same time, Leonard’s nightclub burns to the ground. It turns out to be a miracle in disguise, as Leonard takes all of the insurance money and uses it to open up his very own recording studio, called Chess Records. After getting Muddy to sign a contract, Leonard gives him a shiny new Cadillac as a gift, which eventually becomes a tradition with future artists and leads to the studio earning the nickname, Cadillac Records.
Over the course of the next few years, Leonard sees his record label continue to do extremely well. He signs eventual hit-makers in the form of Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker), Chuck Berry (Mos Def) and Etta James (Beyonce Knowles). But as more artists sign with Leonard, Muddy starts to see his name become a less popular one, which happens right at the point when Muddy’s wife (Gabrielle Union) wants to buy a house, for which Leonard says he’ll gladly pay for.
The story also make note of the influences the artists at Chess Records had on pop music in general, in both good and bad ways. For example, Chuck Berry hears The Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ U.S.A.” on the radio and notices a similarity to the beat of his song, “Sweet Little Sixteen”. And The Rolling Stones even make a stop by Chess Records, where they tell Muddy Waters the band name came straight from one of his songs.
The film’s only unsuccessful side story is the hinting of a love affair between Leonard and Etta James. Once she records the huge chart-topper “At Last”, and reveals to have a serious drug problem that’s causing her to missing studio appearances, Leonard spends more time away from his wife (Emmanuelle Chriqui) to focus on James’ security even more than he should. It’s a subplot that comes a little too late in the film and doesn’t really go anywhere.
The performances are top notch across the board. Brody is thoroughly believable as Leonard Chess. Although his love for the music is never really explained, his determination to get the music out to the public ear is very well conveyed. And all of the actors playing the musicians are phenomenal, both in acting and singing. As far as vocal performance is concerned, Mos Def and Beyonce Knowles are pure showstoppers in their recreation of Chuck Berry and Etta James.
Any devoted fan of blues music or period films should definitely take notice of Cadillac Records. It chronicles an important chapter in music history. The story is well told and the music is flat out excellent!
Yet another top-of-the-line Blu-ray presentation from Sony. The 1950s setting is captured most wonderfully and fluently. Through image detail that’s larger than life and a true knockout mix of colors, you will feel no less than transported to the time period. Everything from the cars to the wardrobe to the musical instruments is given a truly authentic display, as only HD can provide.
Though the film is mainly dialogue oriented, there is an abundance of fantastic music to be heard. Thanks to the Dolby TrueHD sound mix, we get quite a dynamic sound presentation. The many songs of Muddy Waters and Etta James are brought to vivid life in the film, and all of the music on the soundtrack plays fantastically through the sound channels. Dialogue is heard in top notch form as well and is balanced superbly well with the music, which is unquestionably the main attraction here.
Included on the disc is a commentary with writer/director Darnell Martin, Deleted Scenes, two featurettes; “Playing Chess: The Making of Cadillac Records” and “Once Upon A Blues: Cadillac Records By Design” and several Bonus Previews. Lastly, there is a Blu-ray exclusive feature called “The Chess Record Player”, which is an interactive playlist of songs featured in the movie.
Cadillac Records is both a well made period piece and a cinematic jukebox of truly phenomenal music. This Blu-ray release provides the best possible presentation, and the music alone serves as a great reason to check it out in HD.