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Cadillac Records
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Chronicles the rise of chess records and its recording artists. In 1950s chicago cadillac records follows the exciting but turbulent lives of some of americas musical legends including muddy waters leonard chess little walter howlin wolf etta james and chuck berry. Studio: Sony Pictures Home Ent Release Date: 03/10/2009 Starring: Adrien Brody Jeffrey Wright Run time: 108 minutes Rating: R Director: Darnell Martin

An energized and passionate, if selective, telling of the story of Chess Records, Cadillac Records is a worthy entry in the niche genre of movies about rock and roll roots. Adrien Brody plays Leonard Chess, who started Chess Records in Chicago in 1947 and turned the label into an important force for blues, rhythm and blues, gospel and, in time, early rock and roll. Cadillac Records focuses on Chess' relationship with his first significant artist, Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), and the label's rise and expansion with the addition of such talents as Little Walter (Columbus Short), Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer), Howlin' Wolf (Eamonn Walker), Chuck Berry (Mos Def) and Etta James (Beyonce Knowles). Written and directed by Darnell Martin, Cadillac Records captures the scrappy beginnings of an enterprise, and a sound, inventing itself as it goes along. Particularly fun are scenes set in clubs or at Chess' recording facility, where electrified blues never stop pushing the envelope of creative possibility. All the while, danger lurks in shadows or in rivalries between artists; also in the self-destructive streaks of Walter and James, and the sexual fetishes of Berry. But the drama largely centers on the potent connections between all these people, who don't always know where their contribution to a cultural phenomenon is going. One of the film's delights is the way Chess and Waters don't really see rock coming until Berry steps through the door, fusing country music with blues. The film skips over a lot of facts: there's no sign of Leonard Chess' brother, Phil, who co-owned the company, nor is there much hint of Chess' expansion into a lot of other areas of music. None of that is any big deal. But what Cadillac Records is missing is more of a unifying point of view. The story is told as a recollection by Willie Dixon, but in a scattershot way that doesn't tell us who Leonard Chess or Waters really are. Aside from that, the film is well worth seeing. --Tom Keogh

Stills from Cadillac Records (click for larger image)

Customer Reviews:

  • Likeable Film But.....Got To Deal With The Facts
    As with many pop music history enthusiasts looking forward to this film I myself was up and rearing to go when it finally came out on DVD.I mean Adrian Brody,Jeffrey Wright?MAN it had the makings for a classic and Beyonce',someone I feel suffers from mass self imposed over exposure,actually got me interested to see her performance as Etta James,even if obviously she is very wrong for the film in terms of waistline. dad rented it and decided after watching it,while it had it's good points it pressed the point of racial violence a little too heavy for his book;there is one scene here that is particularly unpleasant but I decided to give the DVD a whirl myself. Well...the violence didn't upset me as much as another point made by reviewers this doesn't have 100% historical accuracy. Then again......neither did other music doc's I've loved such as The Temptations. What you'll see in this movie is how the rough and tumble lives of these early R&B and rock n roll pioneers such as Muddy Waters,performed wonderfully by Wright but also Willie Dixon,Howlin' Wolf and of course Beyonce's Etta. Of course the character who gets the most sketched out is Columbus Short,a great actor as well as Little Walter,a character whose short fuse and self victimizing nature get's the most overall screen time hear and results in many the films most "R" rated moments.Whereas everyone else pretty much underplayed their roles. The films plot revolved primarily around the personal and professional tentions as Cedric The Entertainer as Dixon provides the occasional narration,all while music history is being made and rock n roll history is being created from the ground up as various blues styles are clashing with electricity and post war cultural standards are changing all the roles.I would've preferred to see more of that history making aspect played up.But this was a story about the people.That brings me to the main thing that may either draw you to or away from this;there's an undercurrent of negativity to this as civil rights and personal struglles are the main focus and the emphasis tend to be on mainly on the beginning of the whole "sex,drugs and rock n roll" aspects of the culture. Just a look at how the history of Chuck Berry,performed in a great puckish way by Mos Def and Etta James. Strangly where it should be intense the film ebbs;the lead character of the factually barnstorming Leonard Chess (whose brother Phil isn't even mentioned here,not to mention Chess staple Bo Diddly) is portrayed too nuanced by Brody.Not to knock a good actor but the role required a lot more emotionalism and loudness then it was given.But that may be picking nits. Many musical biopics such as this have taken huge factual leaps for the same of dramatic content. Sometimes it utterly ruins the film,sometimes it almost saves it and other times no one's going to give a care. With me it's 50/50.While I'd have loved to see an honest,fact based story about this subject there's always going to be the "entertainment factor" of the old Hollywood clishe. So it's good for what it is but for a truly accurate and often very entertaining look at the real history of Chess Records look for the PBS documentary 'Record Row:The Cradle Of Rhythm & Blues',narrated by Etta James herself.I have it on VHS but if you didn't happen to catch it-it's pretty rare these days,this will have to do....more info
  • 5 Stars for the music- 3 stars for the story
    So it averages out to 4 stars then.
    The music is just great with many key blues performances from Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Etta James, Howlin'Wolf and Willie Dixon recreated. The story is a blend of fiction and fact and one wonders why the half truths and lies had to find their way into the story. Just a few of the "mistruths":
    -There were 2 Chess Brothers, not just one and both had a strong involvement in the company.
    - Len Chess died 2 months after he sold his company not just after stepping foot outside the door.
    -Etta James did not record "I'd Rather Go Blind" in Chicago although she did record her composition for the Chess label.
    -Etta had already been a star for 5 years prior to joining Chess.
    -Len Chess did actually serve as a session musician if the situation demanded it.
    -The Chess company recorded many other musicians and styles during their career.
    -Whether Chess ever dated Etta James is debatable. She had a boyfriend who was writing some of her best material at the time.
    - Chess operated in a few smaller buildings before moving to 2120 South Michigam Ave in 1955.
    A thorough account on what is true and what is not would no doubt reveal countless other mistruths. The question is why does Hollywood have to falsify and dress up the facts when a simple report on the facts would have been so much better. Still, the music in this movie is a blues fan's dream and credit must be given for that....more info
  • Cadillac Records NOT Chess Records
    NOT based on a true story, rather inspired (very) loosely by a true story.
    If looking for some blues history, definitely go elsewhere, it surely ain't here. And any self-respecting guitar player / guitar lover will be appaled by the sight of "Muddy Waters" playing that goldtop Gibson Les Paul, instead of the candy apple red Fender Telecaster which made his sound over 30 years. And speaking of historical errors, Waters was the man to shock England by means of electric blues as far back as 1958....more info
  • Band playing the covers of the Chess artists in the movie.
    The music played in this movie was what made this film believable. The band played so close to the original versions of the songs covered in this movie. Each musician was hand picked by the great Steve Jordon to play as close as possible to sound like the musicians on the original recordings. Marshall Chess was their when we recorded this and said " "Never in my whole life sence the early days at Chess have I heard or seen anyone play or sound like you!" - Marshall Chess (2008)
    Steve Jordon, Kim Wilson, Larry "The Mole" Taylor,( Hubert Sumlim, who was on all of the Chess recordings with Howlin Wolf) Billy Flynn, Eddie Taylor Jr, Barrelhouse Chuck were the musicians who played on this soundtrack.
    Remember this is Hollywood! Yes their wasn't Phil Chess, Bo Diddley, and Sonny Boy Williamson ( to name a few). Their were many other people left out of the movie. Almost every artist at Chess was a star! They couldn't have everyone in the movie.
    I am so glad that this movie brought back the attection to the public all around the world the names of Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin Wolf, Chuck Berry, and the great Etta James. Now go buy these Chess artists records. Listen how great they played! No one ever could touch them or sound just like them, or sing just like them. Or ever will.
    How lucky we were to have listened to Muddy, Walter, Willie Dixon, Sunnyland Slim, Johnny Johnson, Otis Spann, Chuck Berry, Howlin Wolf. We learned how to play our music by these great original Chess recordings!This is the pride of Chicago! CHESS RECORDS!!
    Living in Chicago getting to hear a lot of these artists play live really made the difference for us musicians here in the city....more info
  • Blues hits Tinsel Town!
    The movie tells a good story and gets at many of the critical elements of the blues in Chicago in America in the 1950s, which is certainly worthy of motion picture treatment. So understand that.

    But see that it does so without dealing with the fact that Chess was run by the Chess brothers. The film says `so long' to Phil Chess and focuses on Leonard Chess, who by most accounts was in fact the determined driving force behind Chess Records, the fabled label of Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Etta James and many others. Details subordinate to an attempt to achieve an overall truth.

    For eample, there is a common story that holds that the great Muddy Waters was in a do-rag white-painting the Chess studios at the time the Rolling Stones appeared to record there; that is not how things are depicted in this film. That story may not be true either - in any case, it might not have helped this film, which is a fairy successful music biopic, to have included such a detail.

    The reason I write this is that I started out writing a book called `Sunnyland Blues' because, in a late night kitchen chat, Sunnyland Slim somewhat disgustedly described the Chess brothers' methods of ensnaring artists. The method had to do with `giving' artists Cadillacs [clearly something at the center of `Cadillac Records'] in lieu of true royalties. Sunnyland actually introduced Mudy Waters to the Chess bros..but the film depicts things differently.

    Slim seemed to hold a respect for Chess's accomplishments. From a long-view historical perspective, what the Chess brothers did is something like a blessing - it could have been more, and it could have been more equitable. You decide. Check out this flick. ...more info
  • Underdone and overlooked
    Short Attention Span Summary (SASS):

    1. SASS biopic of Leonard Chess, co-founder of Chess Records, played by Adrian Brody
    2. Quick look at Chicago in the time of segregation
    3. Stirring portrayal of Muddy Waters by Jeffrey Wright
    4. Short history of Little Walter, played by Columbus Short
    5. Quick peek at Chuck Berry, portrayed by Mos Def
    6. Quick leer at Etta James, portrayed by Beyonce
    7. Passing glimpses of Howlin' Wolf (Eamonn Walker) and Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer)

    The problem with this movie is that it doesn't go deep enough into anything, skimming the historical and background stuff to focus instead on cars, cigarettes, alcohol and assorted misbehavior. The main thing you'll learn here is not what made these legends tick, but that they really, really liked Cadillacs.

    A good cast, great music and a story that could have been a lot better than this. The stories of these Rock and Roll Hall of Famers deserve more than this superficial skim.

    Amanda Richards, February 14, 2009
    ...more info
  • they forgot about the truth--but they do deliver a solid gold gem of a movie
    Cadillac Records tells the story of Chess Records, a recording company founded by the two Chess brothers. Chess Record helped make Etta James, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Chuck Berry, Howlin' Wolf and so many more artists famous or even living legends; and that's wonderful. The plot moves along at a good pace although this is not the way things happened in real life and that's a shame. For example, there were two Chess brothers but in this film we only see one of them, Leonard Chess. The plot is also a bit complicated since there are several principle actors in this film. Nevertheless, Cadillac Records is a story about music and race relations; it provides a great deal of insight into just how well good music brought about positive change in American society. The cinematography is excellent and the choreography for the crowded fight scenes really shines. The acting is outstanding.

    The movie itself begins with a brief shot of Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer) who narrates at times to tell the entire story as a flashback. We quickly meet Leonard Chess (Adrian Brody), an ambitious young man who wants to get ahead in this world. Leonard first opens a club in Chicago; but just about the time he meets a few budding artists including Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), Little Walter (Columbus Short) and Jimmy Rogers (Kevin Mambo), Leonard's nightclub mysteriously burns down. Leonard takes the insurance money and buys space for a recording studio--and after a few bribes to some disc jockeys he gets his first recordings from these artists onto the airwaves. Their careers take off like soaring jets and Chess Records clearly will be around to stay. Leonard also starts a tradition that if a singer makes a hit record he will reward them with a Cadillac. Over time other budding artists including Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer), Howlin' Wolf (Eamonn Walker) and Etta James (Beyonc¨¦ Knowles) become part of the "family" that is Chess Records.

    It's fascinating to watch the movie; we see how fatherly Leonard Chess is to his team. For example, Chess always makes sure that Muddy Waters has some money to get by long after Muddy's records have stopped selling. Unfortunately, however, we also see Leonard begin to cheat on his wife Revetta (Emmanuelle Chriqui) with Etta James; and Muddy Waters and other musicians sometimes accuse Leonard of taking advantage of them. In addition, these musicians carry enough weapons on them to make me think this is some kind of gangster movie cloaked in the guise of a musical! There's much more action in this movie, too.

    But the plot is really not the true message of this film. It's particularly important to tell this story because so few people remember who Muddy Waters was; they may not own any of his albums and I myself had never heard of Howlin' Wolf or Willie Dixon. I enjoyed some incredible acting as the movie shows the creative and interpersonal tensions between them that must have built up over years of working together so closely.

    The DVD has a couple of featurettes about the film and how they made it happen. There are deleted scenes and we get an optional commentary with writer/director Darnell Martin.

    Cadillac Records may not be the most truthful take on the history of Chess Records; but it packs a punch and it's quite enjoyable. You'll learn a lot about some great musicians, all of whom broke ground in their day. I highly recommend this for music aficionados and musicals in general.
    ...more info
  • Weak story arc but still somewhat entertaining
    Cadillac Records is really the story of Chess Records founded by a businessman named Leonard Chess who signed some of the biggest black entertainers in the music business during the 50s and 60s. Supposedly Chess Records came to be known as Cadillac Records due to Chess's penchant for paying his musicians with Cadillacs and not cash.

    I've read that there were quite a few liberties taken with the historical record in composing the screenplay. This is particularly true of Leonard Chess (played by a miscast Adrien Brody) who purportedly short-changed the musicians who were under contract to him (the Chess in "Cadillac Records" is more of a good-natured cheerleader who always tries to be a great friend to the musicians he hires).

    The chief flaw of Cadillac Records is that it doesn't have a central protagonist. Just as we're getting used to Muddy Waters as the main character, he's supplanted by Little Walter and Howlin Wolf. Then suddenly Chuck Berry takes the spotlight only to be replaced by Etta James. Unfortunately, the shelf life of musicians (and even big time musicians) is not very long--usually only a few years in the spotlight.

    Mos Def is excellent as a wild and creative Chuck Berry but his screen time is much too short for such a seminal figure. Each of the four main characters have one or two things that happen to them that's quite interesting. With Chuck Berry, it's the fact that he was arrested for violating the Mann Act--having sex with underage girls and traveling over interstate lines. Little Walter ends up shooting a man for simply using his name in a musical group (I couldn't understand why there was no investigation into that shooting). In addition to Muddy Water's womanizing, there's also some attention paid to his financial problems that occurred after he no longer was churning out hit records.

    While Beyonce looks real fine as Etta James, her acting is a bit over the top as she portrays the singer's descent into heroin addiction. I didn't buy Leonard Chess's flirtation with Etta James and Brody and Beyonce simply have no chemistry together.

    Cadillac Records is narrated by songwriter Willie Dixon played by Cedric the Entertainer. The film needs a narrator to compensate for the lack of a strong story arc. Nonetheless, Cadillac Records is worth seeing for the music and the recreation of a bygone era. Just don't expect any drama that will knock your socks off!

    ...more info
  • A good showcase of why musicians stay broke; Not quite accurate

    1. A poor white guy has a girlfriend and has Big Dreams. He starts out as a junkyard owner and then moves into nightclub work. After his club burns down, he is able to put his money into what became Chess records.

    2. He signs a bunch of earthy, gritty black musicians from various places who make some hit singles.

    3. Said black musicians just have tons of problems through which Chess helps them all. These problems form a big chunk of the movie.

    4. The label signs Etta James (later in the movie) and she has a drug addiction and sells everything in the house.

    5. Chess finally sells the label (for whatever reason) and then dies.


    1. One unintended benefit of this movie was to show that color had NOTHING TO DO with why these musicians stayed broke so often. They were up singing and grinning every night and seemed to not be able to count very well. And had nothing to show for all their hard work. (Contrast this with someone as canny as Ray Charles.) These people were driving around in Cadillacs and flat broke.

    2. The plot was enough to keep me interested-- if only to find out how many inaccurate things I could spot. The acting was decent and earthy --although I wonder if Muddy Waters ever really sounded like that in real life (like he had a mouth full of hay after gargling with sulfuric acid). I sure haven't seen any interviews where he sounded like that. Those Southern accents were also a bit over the top. (Oh the irony of black actors in a movie doing bad black accents.)

    3. There was not nearly as much information in this movie as there *could* have been, and that is probably the weakest point.


    1. Little Walter DID NOT die on the floor of Muddy Water's house.

    2. The film made us believe that Chuck Berry was jailed ONLY for having sex with an underage girl. It turns out that he had a criminal record from before and had been in the hoosegow before. So, what might have been a probation or a lighter sentence turned into a heavier sentence because of recidivism. And apparently he was a slooooow learner. He went to jail *again* in the 70s for tax evasion.

    3. This one is questionable. Was Etta James' mother really a prostitute? I've not been able to find anything to that effect.

    4. Leonard Chess did not fall dead right after selling his label, but three months later.

    5. Was Etta James *ever* as slim and attractive as Beyonce Knowles? All the photos in which I've ever seen her (no matter what age) show her as short and, um, rubenesque. (At one point, she was 400 pounds-- and under six feet.)

    6. The narrator referred to where some of the characters were initially working as "plantations." Um, sorry, but two things: 1) Plantations were about 100 years before the action of this movie; 2) No single character in the movie was old enough to have been born on a plantation or into slavery. The accurate word was "sharecroppers," but I guess that was a small detail that was lost.

    Final verdict:

    This is worth a matinee fare or a rental off the New Releases shelf. It was interesting (for a first watch), but not worth more than a single movie ticket (as in, not enough for a date)....more info
  • The Music Alone makes it worth it!
    Cadillac Records chronicled the rise of Chess Records and the career of Muddy Waters, a sharecropper turned musician in the late 1940s. Chess records, the product of a very ambitious Leonard Chess (portrayed by Brody) birthed several great musicians (Etta James, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Howling Wolf, Little Walter to name a few) during a time when the industry was segregated, as well as society. Giving prized cadillacs to his employees versus royalties, Chess created an empire that allowed talented artists to cross over into radio and television. Creating, influencing if not impacting Rock & Roll, R&B as well as other genres of music, Chess Records would stay at the top of the industry for years.

    The movie also looked at the personal lives of these famed stars. The movie centers around Muddy Waters, a womanizer and drunk, who was the first big artist signed to Chess Records, and Leonard Chess (it's founder). A very talented Beyonce plays Etta James who wrestles with her own demons (drugs and alcohol), after being rejected by her father, who is not ready to admit to the world or anyone for that matter that he has a bi-racial/illegitimate daughter. There was Chuck Berry (played by the very talented Mos Def) who was one of the first African Americans to play on American Bandstand, and successfully crossover before going to jail and suing some of the biggest name bands in the country (Beach Boys) for stealing his music. Little Walter, a harmonica playing musician with a temper, entertained us with his quick wit and quicker temper. And a host of other equally talented musicians, among them the very imposing and intimidating Howling Wolf, all who helped create the basis for some of the music we hear today.

    Although I traditionally don't go for these types of movies, I enjoyed it and would recommend it for no other reason than hearing Beyonce singing James' "At Last" and several others. Her voice is indeed magical and resonates of the pain she felt her entire life. She really brought James to life as I think no other musician of today could. If you're bored on a Sunday afternoon, take some time out to see it. It's worth the $8 ticket price.
    ...more info
    Cadillac Records is a 2008 musical biopic written and directed by Darnell Martin. The film explores the musical era from the early 1940s to the late 1960s, chronicling the life of the influential Chicago-based record-company executive Leonard Chess, and the singers who recorded for Chess Records.

    The film stars Adrien Brody as Chess, Cedric the Entertainer as Willie Dixon, Mos Def as Chuck Berry, Columbus Short as Little Walter, Jeffrey Wright as Muddy Waters, and Beyonc¨¦ Knowles as Etta James. The film has been rated R by the MPAA for "pervasive langauge and some sexuality". The film was released in North America on December 5, 2008.Leonard Chess was a record-company executive from Chicago, Illinois, the co-founder of the 1950 American record label Chess Records. He ran the legendary company with his brother, Phil, through the 1950s and '60s.[2] The label started selling albums from the back of Chess' Cadillac,[3] and launched the careers of legendary musical personalities such as blues singers and harmonica and guitar players Little Walter and Howlin' Wolf, blues musician Muddy Waters, soul legend Etta James[4] and guitarist singer-songwriters Chuck Berry and Bo DiddleyCasting
    Originally, Matt Dillon was slated to play the role of Chess,[5] but the role was ultimately given to Academy Award-winner Adrien Brody due to scheduling conflicts with Dillon.[6] Early announcements of the cast also included Columbus Short as Little Walter , Jeffrey Wright as Muddy Waters,[2] and Grammy Award winning singer Beyonc¨¦ Knowles as Etta James. According to director Martin, she wrote the role of James with Knowles in mind.[7]

    As production increased the roster had grown to include Canadian actress Emmanuelle Chriqui as Revetta Chess, Tammy Blanchard as Isabelle Allen, and comedian Cedric the Entertainer as Willie Dixon.[8][9][3] Final line ups of the cast also grew to include rapper Mos Def as Chuck Berry, and Gabrielle Union in the role of Geneva Wade, Muddy Waters' girlfriend.[10]

    The filming of Cadillac Records started in February 2008, in Newark, New Jersey and Mississippi, United States.[8] Martin directed the film,[2][4] and shot for Sony BMG Film.[5]

    Cadillac Records was produced by Andrew Lack and Sofia Sondervan,[9] and co-executive produced by Beyonc¨¦ Knowles.[2]

    American multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and music producer Steve Jordan will produce the soundtrack to the film.[11] Knowles recorded five songs for the soundtrack, including a cover version of Etta James' "At Last" which will be released on December 2, 2008 as its lead single.[12] Mos Def, Jeffrey Wright, Columbus Short, and Eamonn Walker recorded songs for the soundtrack, and Raphael Saadiq, Knowles' sister Solange, Mary Mary, Nas, Buddy Guy and Elvis Presley also appears on the album. The soundtrack will be released in single- and double-disc editions.[12]

    The film had its world premiere on November 24, 2008 at the Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles.[13] On December 5, 2008, it was released nationally.

    The film has garnered positive reviews. Rotten Tomatoes reported that 64% of critics gave positive reviews based on 70 reviews. Its concensus state that "What Cadillac Records may lack in originality, it more than makes up for in strong performances and soul-stirring music." [14] Another review aggretator, Metacritic, gave the film a 64/100 approval rating based on 26 reviews classifying that the film has "generally favorable reviews". [15]

    Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun Times gave the film 3 stars and stated in his review that "The film is a fascinating record of the evolution of a black musical style, and the tangled motives of the white men who had an instinct for it." [16] Elizbeth Weitzman of the Daily News awarded the film with 3 stars and wrote in her review, "Writer-director Darnell Martin clearly respects the fact that the history of Chess Records is a worthy subject." [17] Most critics praised the film for its music, but complain about its script. Jim Harrington of the Mercury News praised Knowles' vocal performance and wrote in his review that Beyonc¨¦ Knowles captivating voice and the film's other pluses can't outweigh the glaring omissions from the story line for this critic" and "Chess Records deserves, and will hopefully someday get, a better spin than the one delivered by "Cadillac Records." [18]

    On its opening weekend, the film opened #9 grossing $3.4 million in 686 theaters with an $5,023 average.[19] As of December 14, the film has grossed $5,924,000.

    Beyonc¨¦ Knowles received a Satellite Award nomination for her portrayal of Etta James.[20] Knowles also earned a Golden Globe nomination for "Best Original Song" for "Once in a Lifetime"

    ...more info
  • When The Delta Blues Went Electric & Became The Chicago Style!!
    Even though they played around with historical facts and figures,
    I still found this movie to be very entertaining and all the
    cast did a good job in their respective parts.
    This is about how Leonard Chess (a 2nd generation polish-american jew)
    and his brother Phil founded the very influential CHESS label
    in the late 40's and early 50's and gave the black music
    that had come up from the south with the great migration a voice
    and a new electric aggressive amplified sound that became known
    as the Chicago Blues!
    Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, John Lee Hooker,
    Chuck Berry, Etta James, Koko Taylor and early gospel artists
    like a very young Aretha Franklin and her father, the very
    influential Reverend C.L. Franklin all found a home at Chess
    and their art was heard all over America and beyond to England
    where people like Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger,
    Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Eric Burdon, John Lennon,
    Paul Macartney, George Harrison and many many others were
    inspired to create a british rock revolution that changed
    pop & rock music forever!
    Chess Records was pre-SUN, pre-STAX and pre-Motown!
    Its only contemporary would be Atlantic Records.
    The real story is far more tumultuous and interesting than
    this movie could ever be, but then it would've been a 3 hour flick.
    I would definitely add it to my collection for the history and
    for rememberance of the label that was a fixture in most
    music loving households from the late 40's to the late 60's
    when Leonard Chess sold it and died soon after from a massive
    heart attack only a few blocks from the site where
    his musical empire once stood!...more info
  • Even your Blues ain't yours if I don't say so.
    As soon as I noticed Jeffrey Wright was on board to play Muddy Waters, I knew regardless of the other components of ensemble cast this film would be worth seeing. He is a standout but underrated actor of the current era and whenever he is presented quality material to work with, a stellar performance is a given. Unlike the phone' em in roles of the James Bond series, in this instance as with Syriana or Boycott, his understated elegance shines through. Beyonce, as Etta James, ain't bad either. In fact, most of the cast is commendable. Eamonn Walker is another actor who excels off the radar screen, but his portrayal of the intensity of Howling Wolf here immediately took me back to his strong characterization of Kareem Said from the HBO series, OZ. Mos Def (Chuck Berry) always seems to exceed my expectations which might indicate I need to re-assess my perceptions and it is refreshing to see Gabrielle Union in a role where more is asked of her than just being the prettiest woman on the planet.

    The story is loosely based on the history of Chess Records, a Chicago based label started by Phillip and Leonard Chess - the latter played by Adrien Brody and the former nowhere to be found in this rendition. Writer/Director Darnell Martin, who has done a great deal of TV work including the film "Their Eyes were watching God," brushed upon most major aspects of the dynamics of the Chess enterprise, the Chess brothers' paternalistic and often exploitative treatment of signed artists and the influence of the label to the development of Rock and Roll but essentially the movie is a gloss-over job of another area of inequity currently relegated to the back pages of the annals of American musical history but deserving of more incisive treatment.

    Yet, notwithstanding my reservations about how closely the film mirrors fact, it is worth seeing only to foment further investigation of the subject area via other resources. ...more info
  • Hollwood treatment
    1 star for making a mostly fictional movie. 3 stars for music and performances.
    I wish a real artist of a director had brought to the screen this important history and done so with a much better script that stuck to the well known historical facts. This is an okay film about an epic original only-in-America story and this story deserved nothing short of a first-rate treatment. "Cadillac Records" does have a fantastic cast. The actor playing Howlin' Wolf is great, for example, but the script paints a slightly embarrassing and arguably one-dimensional portrait of the man while focusing almost entirely on Muddy Waters, who is played by the talented Jeffrey Wright. Adrien Brody plays one of the Leonard Chess while the film entirely omits the existence of the other brother and partner with whom he made music history with Chess Records. The film succeeds in capturing the typical rip-off deals owners made with their musicians back in the day and hence the title of the film. Chess Records is "Cadillac Records" here because the brothers Chess preferred paying their musicians with a nice, shinny Cadillac over money. (I do like how the more rural, seemingly less sophisticated Howlin Wolf turns down the car, preferring the money he is owed.) All in all, a paint by numbers level quality, loose with the facts, liberal with so-called "artistic license", "docudrama" perhaps a slight step above television production due to a talented cast. Includes Mos Def in an entertaining turn as Chuck Berry and in one of the films more cinematic moments there is a black and white mug shot of Chuck Berry juxtaposed with color footage of happy, white surf boarders on either side of it while "Surfin' USA" is playing: The Beach Boys took the melody from a Berry song ("Sweet Little Sixteen"). "Cadillac Records" does a good job portraying the racial discrimination and societal changes these performers endured. The lovely Beyonce Knowles ably plays Etta James and she is nice to look at. It's worth a look, especially if you enjoy Hollywood treatments of music history. But in my opinion music history is seldom done justice by Hollywood and it wasn't here. 4.5 stars for acting. 2 stars for direction and script....more info
  • The Music That Defined a Generation
    As unfamiliar as I am with the music of 1950s artists like Muddy Waters, Etta James, Chuck Barry, and Howlin' Wolf, I was intrigued by "Cadillac Records," a film that dramatizes their story along with that of Chicago's Chess Records. "Dramatizes" is, of course, a fancy term for "historically inaccurate." Consider the fact that Chess Records was founded by brothers Leonard and Phil Chess; not only does the film depict Leonard as the sole founder, it doesn't even acknowledge that Phil existed. This isn't to say that the film doesn't get the job done; even if liberties were taken with history, it still manages to be both compelling and entertaining, telling the story of people who had little going for them other than their love of music. On one side, there are the black artists struggling to find success in a segregated world. On the other side, there are the white men--in this case, Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody)--who wanted to bring that black sound to the airwaves. Most of the time, such men could only rely on independently run radio stations known for playing race music, and even then, bribes were sometimes necessary.

    The film begins by showing the humble beginnings of both Chess and Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright). The former was a down-on-his-luck club owner from Chicago while the latter was a plantation worker from Mississippi. After his goal of opening his own club literally goes up in flames, Chess becomes aware of Waters' music and essentially makes him a creative partner. They then begin visiting race music radio stations in the Deep South, Chess armed with a vinyl record and a bit of extra money to encourage the DJs. The airplay created a demand for blues music, which allowed Chess to start a new record label and open a studio in the middle of Chicago. As an extra incentive, Chess buys his musicians brand new Cadillacs; it's a nice gesture, although there is a definite sense of desperation in what he's doing, not helped by the fact that he often relies on royalties to make payments.

    I can't say much about the real Leonard Chess, but the film version is such a fascinating character, able to recognize good music yet lacking a lot of financial and social know-how. His marriage to a young woman of Polish descent named Revetta (Emmanuelle Chriqui) is often troubled, mostly because a balance between business and family is never really maintained. There also comes a point when he meets Etta James (Beyonc¨¦ Knowles) and begins falling in love with her. She's also a fascinating character, and not just because of her incredible singing voice--assertive, opinionated, and bold, she's not someone to be messed with. Part of it comes from self-esteem issues, believing she's no better than her mother, a prostitute who had an affair with her father, Minnesota Fats. She often flirts with Chess, but she never quite lets him in, not until that pivotal moment when Chess says, "I'm not your father, and you're not your mother."

    The film also explores the relationship between Waters and his wife, Geneva Wade (Gabrielle Union), who tries her hardest to look past Waters' numerous extramarital affairs. Their story is intertwined with that of Little Walter (Columbus Short), who lives with Waters as they both sing exclusively for Chess. Walter, young and impetuous, soon stumbles his way into alcoholism, and while this made for good drama, his inner demons are never really examined. Granted, "Cadillac Records" is loaded with characters; if all of them were fully developed, the film would be hours long. Still, Walter deserved a bit more than he was given.

    Minor subplots featuring Howlin' Wolf (Eamonn Walker) and Chuck Berry (Mos Def) are effective, if a little condensed. Wolf, with his quiet, raspy voice and tremendous height (6'4"), is quite intimidating. He doesn't get along too well with Waters, who he feels is just one of Chess' business pawns. Unlike Waters, Wolf keeps his money well guarded, even going so far as to pay for the health benefits of his band. And as for Berry, who blended blues with country, he doesn't appreciate the fact that white musicians are getting all the credit for inventing rock `n' roll (incidentally, Mos Def has been just as vocal on the subject).

    The film is narrated by Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer), the singer/songwriter known for "You Shook Me," "I Ain't Superstitious," and "Little Red Rooster." Whether or not this was a necessary addition to the screenplay, I'm not sure; turning him into a storyteller is an interesting idea, yet he doesn't add all that much to the story besides some exposition. Still, Cedric the Entertainer is well cast, as is everyone else in this movie. Knowles is the most convincing as Etta James, an independent yet vulnerable woman. But as I said at the start of this review, this movie is more focused on music than it is on historical fact; my praise for Knowles is more of a testament to the skills of writer/director Darnell Martin than it is to the real Etta James. In spite of this, and in spite of the fact that my knowledge of 1950s music is limited, "Cadillac Records" is an engaging, entertaining movie....more info
    This is such a great movie! Everyone in it did a fantastic job! I've seen it three times and it's one to own. The music is great, and even Beyonce - who comes in about two thirds into the movie - is the best she's ever been. Columbus Short was my favorite. His Little Walter was a trip. And Howlin' Wolf was scary. Mos Def was great in his short role of Chuck Berry. I think it should have been in the theaters much longer and promoted more. There are so few movies with a black cast that aren't comedies. And Jeffrey Wright was great as Muddy Waters and Adrian Brody was very believable. My Mom and boyfriend loved it also. And I liked how they told you how they were in the hall of fame and who they sued for using their music. Buy this movie...more info
  • A Good Film
    This is a film about the struggles that African Americans faced to get their musical voices heard. It takes music back to where it all began. The origin of R&B and Rock and Roll. But like the historical music and triumph it also portrays the dark side of the industry in it's early stages. The stand out actor in the film, in my opinion, would be Columbus Short playing Little Walter. He owned his part and made you feel all of his emotion. But the one thing the film lacks is a long enough history line of the dark lives of the charatcers that were portrayed. The dialog quickly skimmed through the lives of these characters. Actors like Mos Def (who played Chuck Berry) did not have much of an appearance and they're is so much more of Miss Etta James' life (beautifully played by Beyonce) that was not shown. The movie had five stories in one and not enough time to tell them all. The actors and actresses did great performances. And a big kudos to Miss Knowles (Mrs. Carter) for her improved acting skills. But sadly she sang more then she acted. If the movie lacks at all it would definitely be due to the lack of script, not in performance.The film had more "f" words in it then storyline. All in all it's a good movie. But sad and depressing....more info
  • You're trouble, you know that?
    Them down home Mississippi blues come of age in Chicago
    in the 40's. The music has a life of it's own here.
    The acting and script are good. What blues are to come?...more info
  • In The Prime Of The Chicago Blues Explosion
    It seems almost anti-climatic to be reviewing this particular film, Cadillac Records, about the rise of Chess Records and its driving force, owner Leonard Chess, in the maelstrom of the Chicago blues explosion of the 1940's and 1950's. Why? Over the past year or so, along with the usual left wing political books by the likes of Leon Trotsky and James P. Cannon that are the core items that I review in this space, I have been fervently doing a personal search for, and reflection on, the roots of American music. And nothing is more central to an exploration of the American songbook than the various expressions of the blues from its roots in the black quarters of plantation society down South, through to the immense process of black urbanization in the mid-20th century and with it the electrification of the blues and further on the use of that genre to form the basis for Rock `n' Roll that was central to much of the musical history of the last half of that century.

    Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Jimmy Reed, Howin'Wolf, Chuck Berry and the divine Ms. Etta James are all names that should be familiar to knowledgeable blues fan and whose fame and fortune, rises and falls form the core of this film. They are also names prominent among those that have been reviewed in this space so this is a real treat. The Chess Record saga is narrated by the actor who plays the producer, "talent hunter", songwriter and musician Willie Dixon, a huge force in the expansion of Chess Records and Chicago blues in general. And this is as it should be. Willie Dixon wrote for both Muddy Waters (the classic "Hoochie Coochie Man", among others) and Howlin' Wolf (the most famous being "The Red Rooster", a song later covered by The Rolling Stones, enthusiastic blues aficionados, and one of my first exposures to the raw electric blues sound. Thank, Willie). He was also at Chess when the music shifted away from the Chicago blues to the `jump' of rock `n' roll driven by the likes of Chuck Berry who could "crossover" to all those white teenagers like me trying to break out of music of our parents' generation. He was also there when Ms. Etta James came on the scene with her R&B style that also was an attempt to do that same crossover with a black woman singer.

    According to the notes to this film it is based on a true story, that of Leonard Chess and the blues stars mentioned above. How much truth there actually is included in the script is beyond the scope of this review. I would note that one of the segments of Martin Scorsese's PBS multi-part Blues homage in 2003 dealt with the role of Chess Records as part of the total blues picture and featured Leonard Chess's son, a record producer in his own right. Some of his comments do not exactly jibe with the presentation of the facts in this film. That is a subject for further research and discovery.

    Some important themes, however, are explored in the film, even if obliquely. The relationship between a young hustling Jew (and his brother, not noted in the film) from Poland trying to make a buck in America and young blacks trying to get out from under rural Jim Crow South in mid-20th century America. The question of interracial sex, both male and female when that was very, very taboo. Martial infidelity, a constant problem in the music industry (and elsewhere). Exploitation of blacks, both financially and musically, by the white-dominated music power structure, including Leonard Chess. The touchy question of black identity and self-respect, addressed very nicely in the tensions between Muddy as a representative "Uncle Tom" and Howlin' Wolf (or Chuck Berry) as the "New Black Man" coming out of new black consciousness of the civil rights struggle blazing away during that period. Addressing those issues should keep us busy for a while.

    Let's finish up with a few kudos, though. A musical tribute to a record company and a famous record producer could have been a piece of fluff. While, as noted above, the film raised a number of questions about what really went on the heart of the movie is driven by the blues and the need to express oneself in that genre, whether as a job or a way of life. The performers carried the day. The camaraderie and falling out between Muddy and Little Walter worked nicely. The struggle's of Etta James (Beyonce is rather fetching here, by the way, as Etta) to break through as an artist works. And so on. The Cadillac automobile formed a symbol for Americans, black and white, back in these days. The artists presented here deserved their Cadillacs. More enduring though, as noted at the end of the film, all the main players here have been inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame. I challenge anyone to argue against those inclusions. Watch this film and then get on the Internet and download the music. Yes, that's the ticket.

    ...more info
  • Music is great -- one historical fact I will not dispute
    "Cadillac Records" calls itself based on a true story, but if you do even a modicum of research you can debunk most but the barest basics of this film.

    In the case of this film, the real true story is the music itself. The songs are vintage Chess Records editions. The story around them, very loosely based on the true story.

    One truth you cannot deny though. Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Howling Wolf, Miss Etta James and others were the progenitors of rock and roll as we know it today. These people made the music that influenced the major R&R artists who changed the world. (And they've got the law suits to prove it)

    Go see the film for an interesting story and glorious music. Get the history elsewhere.

    Rebecca Kyle, January 2009...more info
  • Pretty Decent Musical Biopic
    After hearing so many bad things, about Cadillac Records I had my initial reservations about seeing the film. However being that I'm a fan of director Darnell Martin's earlier films (I Like It Like That & the vastly misunderstood Prison Song) I decided to give the film a chance. The film tells the story of Chess Records & its founder Leonard Chess (Adrian Brody). Some of the early acts on the label included Muddy Waters (the always excellent Jeffery Wright), Lil Walter (an amazing Columbus Short) and later acts Chuck Berry (Mos Def) and Etta James (Beyonce). Brody has a hard time carrying a film of this caliber by himself as Chess really isn't given much to do, other than give Cadillac's to his artists. The heart of the film lies in Wright's & Short's performances. The "father & son" relationship displayed between Muddy & Lil Water was endearing to watch and Short continues to command the screen with this performance. Some of the female cast such as Gabrielle Union & Emuallanle Chrquri are wasted as long suffering housewives, and as for Beyonce, with the material she's given she does a decent job as Etta James. All in all, Cadillac Records may not resonate with classic musical biopics such as Ray & The Temptations, but it's still an enjoyable way to waste a few hours....more info
  • Sex, Guns, Rythmn & Blues, and Payola
    Cadillac Records is the story of Chess Records opened by Leonard Chess in Chicago in the late 40's, and which quickly became a successful and influential record label (would Rock `n' Roll have existed without Chess?)

    The movie is narrated by Willie Dixon (Cedric The Entertainer) and he tells of Chess' (Adrian Brody) beginnings with a bar and a club on the south side of Chicago. The main players in the movies are Muddy Waters (Jeffery Wright) and Little Walter (a standout performance by Columbus Short) who are respectively the best guitar and harp players in Chicago. Chess discovers them when they crash his club and show up the band that is playing. Through the fortuitous burning down of his club Chess opens Chess Records and seeks out Waters, records him, and starts touring him in the south. Chess insures radio airplay with a little payola and Waters career takes off and so does Chess Records. When the money comes rolling in Chess pays Waters with new Cadillac's. New artists join Chess Records, Little Walter, the movie features Columbus Short singing My Babe that is such a standout it would be on MTV as a video if MTV still played videos. Willie Dixon comes on board as a writer/producer for Chess, Howlin' Wolf (Eamonn Walker), Chuck Berry (Mos Def), and Beyonce as Etta James.

    The movie is shy about the financial liberties Chess took in paying his artists. Earlier in this review I mentioned that Chess bar burned down and their seems to be the inference that Chess could have done it for the insurance money. Chess' habit also of paying his artists in Cadillac's in lieu of cash, unfortunately he never asked his artists if that's how they would like to be paid. He also kept Waters on a short leash parsing out money to him and keeping him coming back to Chess for money. Chess rationalized this convincing himself that he was "taking care" of his artists, this paternal and essentially plantation mentality had to fuel some resentment between Waters, who had come from the cotton fields of the south, and Chess. Howlin' Wolf is one of the few artists at Chess that asked for and received his money. At one point Chess offers Wolf an advance and he refuses because he knows it isn't good to "borrow against the store" a way workers were kept in debt to companies.

    I read some of the previous reviews which mentioned some inaccuracies and events out of order. You have to remember movies are only the highlights of a life, in two hours you don't have time to show the events without a little license taken, events get compressed, characters combined into one, fictional scenes added to illustrate unknown or disputed periods in a life. One thing I did notice though is the anachronism in the time line in the movie. The Rolling Stones (some actors who look very little like The Stones, you only guess they're The Stones by their haircuts) come to pay homage to their idols, and Chuck Berry hears The Beach Boys on the radio and a couple of scenes later we see on TV a 1950's era Elvis on the TV.

    All the performances of the movie are good, I just found the presentation a little to typical of the genre. I liked how the ending links the music created at Chess Records with music that has come after Rock `n' Roll and Rap, it's a nice segue from the events in the movie to the present.

    The bonus features are disappointing, there's some deleted scenes, and two featurettes that I almost missed. The first is the actors talking about their characters and how they fit into the history of Chess Records, and the second is about the production design of the movie....more info