Cadillac Records Is a Bumpy but Satisfying Ride
- Monday, December 08, 2008
DVD Release Date: March 10, 2009
Theatrical Release Date: December 5, 2008
Rating: R (for pervasive language and some sexuality)
Genre: Drama/Music Biopic
Run Time: 109 min.
Director: Darnell Martin
Actors: Adrien Brody, Jeffrey Wright, Gabrielle Union, Columbus Short, Cedric the Entertainer, Eamonn Walker, Mos Def, Beyoncé Knowles
If the continued popularity of American Idol has taught us anything, it’s that millions of people still enjoy watching a great success story. Whether it’s the pretty girl-next-door from small-town Oklahoma like Carrie Underwood or a couple of everyday guys named David (that’s Cook and Archuleta, for the unacquainted) who can belt out a tune, well, we can’t help but root for their rock star dreams to come true and will even participate in the process by faithfully texting in our votes.
Long before these nationwide talent searches became ratings gold, however, these same rags-to-riches journeys were embarked on by countless musicians, albeit with far more drama that’s not exactly made for TV. Considering the familiar sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll trajectory of your average biopic, though, one might assume that audiences would grow tired of such predictable cinematic fare. But thanks to the quality, award-winning performances by actors like Jamie Foxx in 2004’s Ray and Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon in 2005’s Walk the Line, there’s an insatiable hunger to watch the often-bumpy ride from a largely unknown artist to world-famous phenomenon play out on the big screen.
And given the racial tension of the era when Cadillac Records takes place and the spectacular true story of a Polish immigrant named Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody) who started a record label that launched the career of blues pioneers including Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Etta James and other great “crossover” artists which inevitably paved the way for rock ’n’ roll, it’s really no surprise it’s getting the big-screen treatment.
Unlike Ray or Walk the Line mind you, Cadillac Records isn’t just about the artists; it’s also about the life of a record label—Chess Records.
After the father of the woman he wants to marry dismisses him for being Polish and not having his life exactly on track career-wise, Leonard decides that he’s going to pursue his dreams of opening a nightclub anyway—even if he doesn’t get the girl. Setting up shop on Chicago’s South side, Leonard eventually hears the husky, electrified Delta blues of a Mississippi sharecropper who goes by the name Muddy Waters (a terrific Jeffrey Wright) and immediately knows what he has to do next: Sign him!
Even though he’s not the most likely guy for the job of recording what was referred to then as “race records,” Leonard is wholly devoted to getting the word out and will do whatever it takes to get Muddy’s music heard by the masses. And when we say “whatever it takes,” it usually involved throwing a little payola to the local dee-jays in exchange for airplay. Questionable ethics or not, Leonard’s perseverance eventually pays off, and before long, Muddy is a bonafide star with a flamboyant pompadour, a pink guitar and every luxury that money and fame can buy.
But of course, it doesn’t take long for the unexpected success to have a high price. Serving as a surrogate father of sorts, Leonard indulges his clients with Cadillacs (hence the movie’s title) and favors that ultimately foster an out-of-control lifestyle filled with fast women, alcohol indulgence, drug use and gambling in place of royalties, which forces the artists he works with to keep performing at a high level to ensure Leonard’s esteem.
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