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Jacqueline Monahan's Movie Reviews

Cadillac Records

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Jacqueline Monahan is an English tutor for the GEAR UP program at UNLV.
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Cadillac Records

As the title implies, this is the story of a musical era, specifically that of Chicago’s Chess Records, the revolution it started, and the lives it changed. The Cadillac refers to the kind of car founder Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody) would bestow upon his hit makers. He was white; they were black. Beginning in 1947, and for the next two decades, that meant an uneasy liaison between the man and his discovered talent.

And a formidable lineup it was. Chess was responsible for discovering the likes of Blues legends McKinley Morgan aka Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), Little Walter (Columbus Short), and Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker); Chuck Berry’s (Mos Def) unique sound and style was introduced by Chess Records onto the airwaves, as were Etta James’ (Beyonce Knowles) torchy and tortured love songs.

Intermittently narrated by songwriter/musician Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer)

Chess was a progressive and innovative businessman, unafraid of controversy or resorting to payola (bribing D.J.’s) to further his interests. The film paints him as a sympathetic boss, always ready to throw money or automobiles at his frequently wayward, high-strung or just plain strung out artists. The money came out of the artists’ royalties, a detail Chess never admitted until long after the fact.

Despite segregation and seething racial tensions, Chess ushered his new sound, Chicago-style Blues, onto the airwaves, a pioneer path fraught with conflict, raw talent, explosive emotions and personal implosions.

The Mocambo, the small nightclub Chess owned and operated featuring local black talent, was where Waters and Little Walter made themselves known through a bar fight that ended up with an extended engagement. Waters was a singing Mississippi farm hand who played a mean blues guitar and was so well known for it that a folk historian showed up at his house one day to record him. Hearing his voice played back, Waters noted, was “like meetin’ myself for the first time.”

Relocating to Chicago as a street musician, Waters meets and marries Geneva Wade (Gabrielle Union) and makes the acquaintance of harmonica prodigy Little Walter before showing up at The Mocambo and literally blowing away the competition. Partnered with Chess, the two artists share several years of success and fame, putting Chess Records on the map. Little Walter gets tragically introduced to gin and mouthy with police officers. Waters rival Howlin’ Wolf is added to Chess’s stable of stars and makes his ferocious presence known to all with threats and murderous gazes. The label becomes even more popular, and then fades for a time, until Chuck Berry whirls, bops and scuttles across stages to bring a rock ‘n roll edge to the studio.

Berry is triumphant in his crossover success until trouble with the law locks him away for a few years. During that time Chess signs a female recording artist in Etta James who sings about pain as if she invented it. Her international hit “At Last” is a crossover smash, but James disintegrates into a self-destructive heroin haze that gets Chess far too wrapped up in the singer, literally and figuratively. Long-suffering wife Revetta (Emanuelle Chriqui) stands by her man. Chess is flawed and disappointed by his own compromises. In-fighting starts; money (or the lack of it) taints the artists with appetites for cars, sex, drugs and booze. It takes a death for a truce to take place. It takes another for the Chess Records era to come to an end.

Throughout it all, there are powerful musical numbers, and the soundtrack is a mix of original recordings and re-creations from the talented ensemble cast. The actors lose themselves in their roles

Adrien Brody balances a basic decency with shady maneuverings to pull off a conflicted performance of a capitalist trying to be loyal to the people that made him rich. Jeffrey Wright combines quiet dignity with simmering rage to make his Muddy Waters a multi-faceted musician full of rationalizations.

Columbus Short’s reckless Little Walter illustrates the perils of what is called “the mean streets” by his hairtrigger temper and deteriorating health. Mos Def’s playful Chuck Berry captures the spirit of the man. Eamonn Walker’s Howlin’ Wolf will make you pray you don’t meet him when the moon is full. Menacingly charismatic, Walker sinks his lupine teeth into his role as Waters’ musical rival.

Gabrielle Union and Emanuelle Chriqui remind us of the quiet struggle for exclusive identity women fought and frequently lost when they stood behind their frequently straying men.

Writer/director Darnell Martin (I Like It Like That) captures the violence, excitement, triumph and tragedy that marked the birth of the blues and its offspring, rock ‘n roll. She features the music as much as the musicians, letting its rhythm pound and passions ignite, keeping the carburetor and the turntable in good working order.

As a result, you’ll want to take both the Cadillac and the records for a spin.