The release of Cadillac Records (and the existence of the still-unreleased Who Do You Love) underscores the oversight that's kept filmmakers away from Chicago's Chess Records for so long. Home to artists like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Bo Diddley, Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter, Chuck Berry, and Willie Dixon in their mid-century prime, the Chess roster teems with characters whose lives could provide the fodder for many remarkable movies. Or they could be carelessly piled into one movie that leaves no life-of-the-artist cliché untouched, like Cadillac Records does.
Adopting the once-over-the-most-famous-moments-lightly approach favored by the sort of movies and retrospectives that VH1 Classic airs on a loop, Cadillac Records plays more like a collection of costumed episodes than a cohesive film. Adrien Brody plays Leonard Chess who, with his brother Phil (barely a character here), uses an eye for talent to expand a nightclub business into a successful studio. Jeffrey Wright co-stars as Muddy Waters, a singer-guitarist whose talent and charisma make him a giant among the bluesmen who migrated north to create the new electric sounds of the post-war era. As the two build the label, new artists pass through Chess' doors, including self-destructive hitmaker Etta James (played by Beyoncé Knowles, who also executive-produced the film).
A lot gets lost as writer-director Darnell Martin rushes to tell the whole Chess story from beginning to end, and though she reveals a keen eye in a few scenes and develops an overarching theme by repeatedly returning to Chess' not-always-selfless paternalism, she lets the plot drift and allows her cast to deliver whatever performances they like, regardless of whether they belong in the same movie. Some deserve movies of their own (Wright and Mos Def as Chuck Berry). Some try too hard (Knowles, an unconvincingly fatsuit-clad Eamonn Walker as Howlin' Wolf). And the half-awake Brody doesn't try hard enough. Almost unavoidably, the film includes a lot of fine music. But as with most music biopics, it's never clear where it comes from, or how there's time to make it between the boozing and the bedding. And the print-the-legend approach to the facts, plus the need to squeeze conflict and drama into almost every scene, just make things worse. Martin attempts to present the whole oversized Chess story, but instead winds up reducing the lives and art that give it shape.