In 1950, as the blues, gospel and jazz cross-pollinated but before Detroit’s Motown, before Memphis’ Sun and Stax, there was Chicago’s Chess label. Those of a certain age fondly remember its logo, a silhouette of a king chess piece flanked by those of bishop and knight.
“Cadillac Records,” Darnell Martin’s boisterous, if not always factual, account of the house that Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Chuck Berry and Etta James built, is a variety show of the personalities and music that spawned the urbanization of the blues and midwifed the birth of rock ‘n’ roll.
Martin, who made her film debut in 1994 with the raucously funny “I Like It Like That,” wrote and directed this ensemble drama with music and narrative enough for five features. In this crowded film that lacks a defining central character, all the actors, however dominant or subsidiary, deliver star turns. This is not necessarily a good thing.
Martin’s movie chronicles a transformational moment in popular music and culture. Before being eclipsed by the other performers, Jeffrey Wright registers powerfully as bluesman Muddy Waters, Mos’ Def duckwalks as country-to-rock crossover dream Chuck Berry, and Beyonce wails her heart out as soul singer Etta James.
But among these scene-stealing headliners (who include Adrien Brody as the label’s “ears,” Leonard Chess), the knockout is Eamonn Walker, positively feral as blues sensation Howling Wolf. “Cadillac Records” is a toe-tapping experience where the music rather than the actors dominate. Some other characters could have done a far beter job, such as Queen Latifah casted as Etta James.
As drama, “Cadillac” is adequate. As a jukebox musical, it soars.
By Carrie Rickey / McClatchy Tribune