Sony // 2008 // 109 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Brendan Babish (Retired) // March 19th, 2009
If you take the ride, you must pay the price.
In 2008, Cadillac Records, written and directed by veteran TV director Darnell Martin, beat out the similarly themed Who Do You Love? to become the first film on the history of Chess Records to hit the cineplex. Unfortunately, there didn't seem to be room for one Chess Records film -- much less two -- as Cadillac Records earned just $9 million at the box office, and Who Do You Love? doesn't even have a release date. Still, this does leave the DVD market wide open for Cadillac Records; but is this film worthy of resurgence on home video?
From the early 1940s to late 1960s, white music executive Leonard Chess (Adrian Brody, The Pianist) discovered and recorded some of the most groundbreaking African-American musicians and singers of the soul and early rock era. Cadillac Records is the story of Chess and the myriad (and troubled) artists whom he discovered, and whose music he distributed through his label, Chess Records: Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright, Angels in America), Chuck Berry (Mos Def, Be Kind Rewind), Etta James (Beyonce Knowles, Dreamgirls), Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer, Codename: The Cleaner), and Little Walter (Columbus Short, Stomp the Yard), all of whom are Rock 'n Rock Hall of Fame inductees.
I knew very little about Leonard Chess and most of the legendary artists he discovered some fifty years ago. That said, I am aware that these artists were huge influences on some of my favorite and formative bands, such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, not to mention rock pioneers such as Elvis Presley and Eric Clapton. So I was eager to learn more about Chess Records, including the man who created it and the artists who built it.
The problem is, there just were too many artists, too many songs, and too much drama for one film to do the story of Chess Records any justice. The first major concession the film makes to its time constraint is almost entirely cutting out Chess Records co-founder Phil Chess. This decision may have made sense dramatically, but I was disappointed to later learn how influential he was in the company. For fans of Chess Records, this omission would probably be even more disappointing.
Still, the bigger dramatic liability is the number of characters and subplots in one movie. Each of these artists seem to contain enough material for a rich movie on their own; instead they rotate into Leonard Chess' orbit, score a hit or two, have a crisis, then rotate out. The first 45 minutes of the movie focus on the relationship between Waters and Chess; this intriguing partnership between a bluesman from Mississippi and an Eastern European immigrant peters out through the second half of the movie to make way for Chuck Berry, Howlin' Wolf, and Etta James.
Each one of those performers -- especially Berry -- seems to warrant a biopic, but instead we get 20-minute glimpses of their early careers. Berry seemingly appears out of nowhere, scores huge hits, gets arrested for transporting a minor across state lines, then disappears. James also appears as a nearly fully formed star, and then quickly plunges into rushed subplots involving romance and an underdeveloped question of paternity that left me scratching my head. It doesn't help that the movie periodically takes breaks to showcase the seminal music produced at Chess Records. Certainly James' song "At Last" is worthy of a full hearing, but in aggregate all these songs make up 20 minutes of the movie's running time, leaving even less room for the drama.
All that said, Cadillac Records is capably acted, written, and directed. Though the film doesn't get great performances from it reliable stars Brody and Wright, the supporting cast is strong, especially Def, whose wry turn as Berry steals every scene that he's in. There's just not enough development or cohesiveness to tell any one, much less all, of the many great stories of Chess Records.
Though the picture quality of Cadillac Records is adequate, it doesn't reach the high bar set for a Blu-ray release. The colors are muted, which is especially unfortunate because Martin has done a great job recreating the time period. The picture is clear, but several times I would study the background and it just wasn't as vivid as most other releases I've seen.
The sound was also a little disappointing. Though much of the music presented is classic and timeless, the soundtrack doesn't bring it to the new levels I expected. The individual instruments -- Muddy Waters' guitar, Little Walter's harmonica -- don't stand out, though the vocals, Beyonce's in particular, do shine. It also doesn't help that the surround sound is rarely employed on the disc.
There is a sizable trove of special features, highlighted by Martin's commentary track. As one would expect from the writer and director of this film, she is extremely knowledgeable about Chess Records and its recording artists, and she provides a lot of background to the stories that are given short shift in the movie. Listening to Martin, who has a television background, it's clear she should have turned Cadillac Records into a series -- or at least a mini-series -- not a movie. There are also two well-done featurettes, one on the making of the film, the other largely on the challenges in re-creating Chicago of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s -- especially on such a small budget. Lastly, there are a handful of brief scenes.
The one Blu-ray exclusive is The Chess Record Label, which allows those with BD-Live to listen to songs from the movie and share them with friends.
Cadillac Records is a prime example of more is less, in which writer/director Darnell Martin tried to shoehorn decades of rock history into a single film, failing to do justice to her subjects or their music.
Guilty of a scope far out of whack with a 100-minute running time.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 109 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Official Site
* Cinema Verdict Review