Cadillac Records is a kind of ensemble biopic that focuses on the story of Leonard Chess, founder of Chess Records, and the iconic musicians that entered into recording contracts with him. Chess Records was one of the first labels to give black musicians an opportunity to have careers, and became one of the premier blues labels of the 1950's and 1960's. The list of blues players that belonged to the Chess family is a who's-who of blues icons: Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), Little Walter (Columbus Short), Willie Dixon (Cedric The Entertainer), Howlin' Wolf (Eamonn Walker), Chuck Berry (Mos Def), and Etta James (Beyonce Knowles). The actors are phenomenal, playing these larger-than-life characters with both creativity, and an eye to the factual details. Adrian Brody was also excellent in the role of Leonard Chess.
Beyonce Knowles is the film's executive producer, and her passion for the music is evident. The performance sequences are plentiful, and extremely authentic. There is a mixture of original recordings being mimed by actors using lip-sync, and songs that are performed by the actor-singers themselves (I dare anyone not to get choked up during Knowles' performance of "I'd Rather Go Blind"). I give credit to the film for being unafraid to portray the musicians without glossing over their personal faults. Muddy Waters was a womanizer; Little Walter was a mean drunk and violent at times; Chuck Berry had an affinity for young women; and Etta James was an emotionally damaged heroin addict. Director Darnell Martin makes no attempt to gloss over these facts, and this lends the movie a real sense of credibility.
If there is one flaw with the film, it's that it seems to lack an emotional core. Since the film weaves such a large tapestry of stories in a limited amount of running time, it can become difficult to attach yourself to the characters. At the end, I found myself wishing that I knew more of the background details to their lives. Overall, though, it was both an informative and entertaining movie. Fans of the early blues are going to be in heaven, soaking up even the smallest background details (like men playing cards and drinking beer right in the recording studio). I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it at all.