3 out of 5 stars
Chess Records pioneered a little-known, little-seen musical force that today we call rock‘n’roll. During its heyday, the studio was home to some of the greats — singers who may be barely recognizable to today’s generation.
Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody, “The Pianist”) is a nobody, down on his luck and living in a junkyard. Like the hero of any success story, he makes a promise that one day he’ll open a club, make something of himself and, most importantly, drive a Cadillac. “Cadillac Records” chronicles his rise to becoming a somebody, which he achieves by starting his own record company, Chess Records.
The most prominent singers on display here are Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright, “Quantum of Solace”), Chuck Berry (Mos Def, “Be Kind Rewind”) and Etta James (Beyoncé Knowles, “Dreamgirls”). Each was a revolutionary presence, crossing racial barriers long before society deemed it acceptable.
Brody’s acting is solid, but it’s Wright, Mos Def and Knowles who comprise the true life force of the film. Though given far less screen time than Wright, both Mos Def and Knowles seem to be having a lot of fun portraying these iconic singers. Knowles also proves that she does grow with each film role, as she is quite good here.
For these singers, vices come with the fame: alcoholism, drug abuse and bankruptcy. It seems that each of Chess’s employees grappled with one of these demons, if not all three. Unfortunately, due to the short running time and massive amounts of subplots, there simply isn’t enough time to really get to know any of these singers, or even Chess himself. Even Muddy, who gets the most screen time, is a bit of a mystery.
But the film is less about Chess — or the artists themselves for that matter — than it is about the music and social climate it’s based on. The film is meant to be about the African-American impact on music and how white society eventually took hold of it and claimed it as its own. Several issues are hardly addressed, such as Chess ripping off his clients by buying them each Cadillacs out of their own royalties, and a hypothetical love affair between himself and James. This leaves the audience wondering who is supposed to be the hero of this story. Apparently it’s meant to be Chess, who cared more about music than racial lines, but the film makes it hard to accept that.
Still, the film is a joy to watch. The pace is upbeat, as is the music, and it’s this energy that gets the audience through the slower moments. The film is simply fun. It may also inspire new generations to discover these older talents.
The sad fact is, people today may not even realize just how influential these artists were. Did you know that the Rolling Stones were so inspired by Muddy Waters that they named their band after one of his songs? Probably not.
Unfortunately, the influence of these artists is only seen at the end of the film in one of those standard “where are they now?” explanations used for films based on true stories. The most sobering part of this is that many of the triumphs recounted for the musicians featured in the film include the suing of white musical groups for stealing their music, which raises the question: Just how much does music today really owe these artists?