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Movies Review

Cadillac Records

By
Cadillac Records
Released on Friday, Feb 20 2009

Director: Darnell Martin
Screenwriters: Darnell Martin
Starring: Jeffrey Wright, Adrien Brody, Mos Def, Beyoncé Knowles
Running Time: 109 mins
Certificate: 15

Telling the story of the legendary rise and demise of Chess Records in 1950s and '60s Chicago was always going to be a tough task, given the sheer amount of turbulence and iconic performers synonymous with the label. Cadillac Records tries to cram in as much detail as possible, touching on many important personal journeys, yet despite some taut direction and engaging performances the movie feels like its barely skimming the surface and doing the complex subject matter justice. An abundance of violence, sexual jealousy and some corking tunes do ensure that it's very much an enjoyable cinematic experience though.

Darnell Martin's script initially does its best to give the narrative some focus by concentrating on the career of Muddy Waters, played superbly by Jeffrey Wright with the right balance of brooding intensity and humble humanity. His relationship with label founder Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody) and self-destructive harmonica player Little Walter (Columbus Short), forms the basis of the first half of the movie, when Waters is plucked from obscurity and battles hard to get his unique records on the white-dominated airwaves.

As Chess Records continues to grow, despite increasingly volatile arguments behind the scenes, highly troubled artists like Chuck Berry and Etta James join their stable. Yet despite entertaining and moving performances by Mos Def and Beyoncé Knowles respectively, their entrances work against the film by splitting the story into too many directions. The characters are all so engaging that we want to delve into their lives more, and feel unsatisfied when crucial moments are rendered a mere footnote.

Nonetheless, while the subject matter would have benefited from the mini series treatment or covering fewer years, much of what we do see is high class material. Plenty of short, snappy scenes convey a lot of of narrative information and characterisation among the ensemble cast, while the wealth of fantastic blues and rock and roll tunes binds various montages together in fabulous style. In particular, Beyoncé's rendition of 'I'd Rather Go Blind' provides a spine-tingly epiphany and ties in with the ongoing turmoil of Etta James's private life.

Cadillac Records also provides a fascinating snapshot of how life was like for non-white artists at the time, with so-called 'race music' frowned upon by many. The power of music to transcend such hatred and discrimination is wonderfully brought out during a recreation of a famous Chuck Berry concert, where the segregated black and white crowds defied the police and tore down the barriers to boogie on down together.

Overall, Cadillac Records is an admirable and slick effort, but it could have been a great one. 'Leave the crowd wanting more' is often the mantra of singers performing a concert. Sadly, this doesn't apply to the movies.


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