Biopics are by nature formulaic, and music biopics even more so, so it should probably come as no surprise that Cadillac Records, which is essentially several music biopics in one, is all formula, all the time. The heavily streamlined and fictionalized story of influential Chess Records is like Dreamgirls lite, a flat, bland, lifeless version of that lavish musical about the rise of another important record label (Motown).
The two films also share a star in Knowles, who’s been heavily touted in Cadillac’s promotional materials but doesn’t actually show up until more than halfway into the movie as powerhouse singer Etta James. Knowles has amazing pipes, unlike everyone else in the movie, and it’s clear that writer-director Martin knew which aspect of her star to showcase: Recording-studio sequences featuring other artists generally introduce quick montages, but when Knowles’ James opens her mouth to sing, we hear the entire song uninterrupted.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, since the music is the best thing the movie has going for it. Chess was built primarily on the success of blues legend Muddy Waters (Wright), who along with founder Leonard Chess (Brody) helped grow the Chicago-based enterprise into a nationally recognized juggernaut. Or, at least that’s how the movie tells it; in reality Chess’ brother Phil ran the label with him, but he’s nowhere to be found in the movie, and numerous important Chess milestones and artists are left out as well.
That’s probably for the best, since Martin has too much to deal with already. She tries to tell the life stories of Leonard Chess, Waters, James and harmonica virtuoso Little Walter (Short), throwing in Chuck Berry (Mos Def) and Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker) along the way, and as a result gives each one short shrift. All we get is a highlights package, with clichéd moments including prophetic first sips of alcohol, crying girlfriends home alone while their men are out carousing and naïve musicians signing contracts they don’t understand. It’s all wrapped up with heavy-handed narration from Cedric the Entertainer as Chess house songwriter Willie Dixon. The real, complex life story of any one of the people involved would probably have made for a worthwhile movie, but this condensed version does none of them justice.