Cadillac Records simply rocks. This movie seems to have it all -- a musical dream machine with some of the best acting and singing you will see this year.
Chronicling the rise of blues label Cadillac Records, this rollicking musical charts the emergence of the blues musicians as popular hit makers and leads up to the birth of rock and roll. Focusing on several well-known early blues and rock legends, Cadillac Records mixes issues of race, infidelity, payola, violence and other things -- providing a turbulent backdrop for its portrait of an era full of great talent and great heartache. It starts in 1947 when bar owner Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody) hires a young blues combo: guitar wizard Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright) and an edgy harmonica player Little Walter (Columbus Short). This leads to a record deal and the formation of Chess label company. With other musicians such as Big Willie Dixon (Cedric The Entertainer) and Howlin' Wolf (Eamonn Walker), the label is rolling nicely down its own track when in 1955 Chuck Berry (Mos Def) walks through the door. Rock and roll is born, taking Chess and his artists to the mainstream. Drug addiction, drinking, women, tragedy and personal relationships -- including Chess' own with a new discovery Etta James (Beyonce Knowles) -- form the core of this engrossing showcase, paying tribute to those who paved the way.
The ensemble cast that forms the heart of Cadillac Records is brilliant. Wright is powerful and surprisingly musical as the legendary Muddy Waters. Short (Stomp the Yard) is an impressive newcomer as the erratic but supremely talented Little Walter, the Tupac of his time. Brit Walker (Prison Break) is particularly compelling to watch, explosive and vibrant as Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters' chief rival. Best of all is Mos Def, alive and hilarious as the unpredictable Berry. His musical sequences are a highlight and his Berry impersonation really gives the man himself a run for his money. Also standing out is an amusing Cedric the Entertainer as the appropriately named Big Willie Dixon, and Gabrielle Union, fine as always as Muddy's long-suffering wife. Brody, as the head of the company, is largely unsympathetic as the conniving Chess, but the actor does manage to convey his drive and ultimate concern for the livelihood of his stable of musicians. Then there's the sensational Dreamgirl Beyonce (who also co-produced) as the inimitable Etta James. She not only sings up a storm with such James standards as "At Last," she proves she can really act in a couple of rousing dramatic moments.
Writer/director Darnell Martin (I Like It Like That) manages to bring an energy and informed musicality to Cadillac Records that sets it apart from other movies in the shopworn musical biopic genre. By focusing on a group of artists, Martin manages to give each of her prodigious stars their own moment to shine. Wisely letting the cast do their own singing, Martin manages to get an extra air of authenticity and electricity. Ultimately, Cadillac Records is a stirring tribute to the artists who brought blues and rock into the mainstream, and even through personal tragedy and financial problems, manages to finally get their just rewards. This unheralded 2008 sleeper hit sneaking into theatres just before the holiday crunch is a gem.
Hollywood.com rated this film 3 1/2 stars.