Set in the 1950s and ’60s, in the midst of racial segregation and on the eve of the civil rights movement coming to fruition, there is plenty of history to chew on. However, unlike many other biopics that insist on recreating historical events to contextualize its story, “Cadillac Records” successfully does so without ever straying from its music. Never are the viewers dragged down by biographical clichés such as recreating archival footage, newspaper clippings and a date-to-date narrative. Instead the film recounts the era strictly through the lives and music of Muddy Waters, Etta James, Little Walter and Chuck Berry. The film is clearly not about the politics that shaped our society, but rather about the music that allowed it to grow.
“Cadillac Records” chronicles the rise and fall of Chess Records, the record company behind the great artists mentioned above. The film dutifully crowns Waters, James, Walter and Berry as the true founders of rock n’ roll, the geniuses behind The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Elvis Presley and The Beach Boys. It acknowledges the fact that those who paved the grounds for such musical greats were African Americans and reminds us that rock n’ Roll, a musical genre that is nowadays the least identified with the African American culture, is in fact its offspring. Ironically, while African Americans were struggling for equal rights, they were uniting the population, expanding American culture, and scoring the melody for a more harmonious future with their music. A fact that is to this day mostly unacknowledged.
The only regret that comes with watching “Cadillac Records” is that the featured artists do not have their own biopic, as each and every one of their lives is captivating and compelling enough to be granted its own film. However, the cast makes the most of what they have, and delivers the best performances of all of their careers. It has been a long time since a cast has been this uniformly solid in a movie: a testament to its director Darnell Martin. Jeffrey Wright, Columbus Short, Adrien Brody, Gabrielle Union, Mos Def and Beyoncé Knowles are on top of their game, and all deliver Oscar worthy performances. Ironically, their merit will probably go as unnoticed as the merit of the artists they are portraying. Had they each headlined their own movie, they would have probably gotten the acclaim that they deserve.
“Cadillac Records” gives the musical movement it chronicles a new breath, and if anything, will allow its audience to rediscover the ’50s classics that should never have been forgotten in the first place. The movie stands as one of the most striking displays of talent to have hit the screens in a long time and should definitely not go unnoticed.
Review by Ralph Arida