The music of Chess Records from the 50s and 60s is some of the most incendiary in our history but very much of its time. People today may hear a Little Walter song or a Muddy Waters song and not be able to respond to it. The records were almost primally raw and really have no modern equivalent. The gift that Cadillac Records gives us is that it returns the context to this music. In an early scene when Muddy Waters and his band tear into 40 Days and 40 Nights it’s positively thrilling, just as it would have been in 1956.
Plenty of people on IMDb and elsewhere have complained about the historical inaccuracies in Cadillac Records. (In the entire history of movies I’d like to know which films “based on a true story” did not contain conflations of characters, chronological errors, and/or outright lies, in the interest of creating a saleable product… that’s right, there aren’t any.) Cadillac Records inevitably compresses events, gets details wrong, and does without some individuals (no Bo Diddley, no Phil Chess, no Marshall Chess). Yet writer and director Darnell Martin somehow is able to fit in the stories of five outsized personalities (Muddy, Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, Chuck Berry and Etta James), each a towering figure in American music, and remind us honestly why these people are important.
Musical biopics are an especially tricky business. Casting becomes ridiculously critical (who, I ask you, who is going to play James Brown? No one on earth is up to that. If it’s Spike Lee on the line, don’t pick up), and along with its beautiful set and costume design, Cadillac Records comes up a winner here pairing sure bets like Adrien Brody and Jeffrey Wright along with riskier picks like Beyonce and Mos Def. Everyone hits grace notes with their characters, including Columbus Short as the brilliant, doomed Little Walter. Having Willie Dixon (Cedric The Entertainer) as the narrative voice is spot on, and having Muddy Waters as the central thread of this story is not only inspired, but feels exactly right. Jeffrey Wright, asked to sing as well as act this titanic figure, plays him shrewdly, never pushing too hard, but always aware of his power. And miraculously, the rest of the cast rises to his level.