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Cadillac Records Review

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by AVForums Jul 20, 2009

    Cadillac Records Review
    Where would modern music, i.e. the music of the past 50 years or so be today without the blues? A style of music, born from slavery, sometimes coupled with gospel and always detailing the hurt that life itself can bring to one's life. If you've never loved and lost then the blues is not for you. At its core are the experiences that people have gone through, the emotions they have had to deal with and the loss that everyone at some stage in their lives feel at one point or another.

    Those feelings put to music with a ripping electric guitar, some heavy bass lines and a harmonica which is used in ways never thought of before results in the beginnings of a 'pop' phenomenon which would dictate the underlying currents of most, if not all, stylistic choices for decades to come. So you could say that the blues was rather influential; and even saying that is a massive understatement.

    So this is ripe material to examine and one which writer/director Darnell Martin decided to try her hand at. She picks up the reigns looking at Chess Records. Founded by brothers Leonard and Philip Chess in the late 40s, Cadillac Records details the history of this ground-breaking studio, some of the artists on its books and gives the briefest of insight into some of these artists lives. The people concerned are Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Chuck Berry and Etta James. Chess recognises a 'new' sound. A sound which had been sung for years before in the corn and cotton fields but one which he could now capture, put onto vinyl and bring to the world; The Blues. Darnell shows us all too brief snippets from each emerging artist and how Chess Records went from strength to strength.

    This though is the problem, it's far too big a story to encapsulate in just a couple of hours. There is no mention of other remarkable artists under the Chess Record banner (Bo Diddley, John Lee Hooker or even Benny Goodman who signed with them for a period of time), concentrating on the four mentioned earlier. Even with these four though there is still too much to cram into such a short space of time. Cadillac Records should have concentrated on Chess Records exclusively or one of the above artists. Then it might have been able to go into some depth, what we're left with though is little more than a gloss over on such an important period in musical history.

    The film opens with Leonard (no real mention of his brother Phil), finding and signing Muddy Waters and we get the impression that the film will cover these two greats almost exclusively. One by one as music develops we're introduced to Little Walter, Chuck Berry and Etta James. Each of course have their own story to tell but there's just not enough screen time on any one to do them all the justice they deserve. Mos Def creates a wonderful Chuck Berry and Beyonce Knowles an acceptable Etta James but the rest of the players seem as though they are treading water somewhat. I have a lot of time for Adrien Brody but he doesn't really seem to have the passion that Leonard Chess had for the music and people of the time.

    There is some insight into his business dealings, and at times he comes across as a shark of a businessman paying his artists with Cadillac cars rather than money. The artists are pleased enough having come from incredibly poor backgrounds but the reality sinks home a little when we see Chess in his mansion whilst Muddy Waters, who made him some of that fortune, still lives in a cramped apartment and has but 20 dollars to his name. There is no doubt that Chess loved the music he was producing but let's not be coy he wasn't perhaps the glorious saviour that nurtured young black talent. He was a businessman first and foremost and this part of the story was never examined in too much detail.

    All of the actors have to be commended to some degree for singing the songs you'll undoubtedly remember, with, of course, Beyonce knocking out some damn fine notes, but it sounds a little too clean for my liking with none of the edge that the real sessions and recordings had. Production values are high enough with excellent attention to detail in the clothing, the streets and the bars and clubs which Muddy, Little Walter and Howlin' Wolf had to play. Like the music though it's just too sterile and lacking a certain something. It's as though Darnell Martin knows the blues, appreciates the age in which this style of music matured and was brought to the masses but it's as though she never really 'understands' the blues.

    Any one of the artists mentioned earlier could have independent films made of their lives, a part of which included Chess Records. Leonard Chess and his brother Phil could have a film made about them and the artists which passed though their studio. This though tries to amalgamate the two and just doesn't quite work as well as it could have done. If you're unfamiliar with the blues and its history then perhaps this is a good enough introduction but don't think that this was the be all and end all, listen to more and read more if you really want to get into some of the history of what made music the way it is today.

    Acceptable enough, and a damn good rental but in some ways this is too big a project to take on and should have been split into independent stories, a series on the blues... looks like one for television rather than the big screen. Still somewhat enjoyable though.