Many people equate blues with jazz, and don't realize the blues' fundamental elements directly influenced the evolution of rock-'n'-roll. The transformation didn't occur overnight, and the African-Americans who developed this new, infectious sound didn't receive the credit they deserved until years later when history was already written. 'Cadillac Records' strives to set the record straight, and paints a warts-and-all portrait of this turbulent period as it salutes the people and chronicles the events that reshaped American popular music.
At the center of it all is Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody), a Polish immigrant's son, whose insatiable craving for success and love of the earthy, sultry blues inspire him to cross Chicago's color lines and promote a bunch of talented unknown African-American artists who one day would achieve legendary status within the music industry. To Leonard, a shiny red Cadillac represents the fulfillment of the American dream, and he drives himself mercilessly to achieve that status symbol both for himself and those he manages. First as a club owner and later as founder and president of Chess Records, Leonard discovers and markets such gifted musicians as Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), Little Walter (Columbus Short), Willie Dixon, (Cedric the Entertainer), Chuck Berry (Mos Def), and the soulful Etta James (Beyoncé Knowles) during a time of major social upheaval and unrest.
The hard-fought recognition and heady success, however, quickly take a heavy toll on Chess and his roster of stars. Over time, alcohol, drugs, infidelity, reckless relationships, and arrogance debilitate them, and threaten to sabotage their fledgling careers. But just when they're poised to fall off the precipice, music – most of the time – brings them back from the brink. They may snuggle up to warm bodies in bed or romance the bottle, but at the end of the day, they're all married to the blues; it nourishes them, inspires them, and pushes them to scale great heights, and no other relationship is as intimate or binding.
Though it contains several soaring musical numbers, 'Cadillac Records' is the antithesis of the slick, glamorous, make-believe world of 'Dreamgirls.' Both movies focus intently on promotion and "crossing over," but 'Cadillac Records' is largely a true story, and writer-director Darnell Martin seems to take pride in its grit and guts. Frankly, I prefer 'Dreamgirls,' but I can appreciate the passion and spirit that infuses every frame of Martin's film. Though she focuses largely on the music, Martin puts her finger on America's racial pulse during the '40s, '50s, and '60s, and shows how the blues and rock-'n'-roll at first divide, then unite blacks and whites. The period detail, amazing musical work of the film's stars, and believable portrayals all contribute to the movie's success, but Martin stumbles a bit by adopting the blues' lazy, languid pacing. Though I was never really bored during the film, I craved more cinematic energy.
I also expended way too much effort trying to decipher the dialogue. While I'm convinced the actors' dialects and cadences are spot-on and true-to-life, they mumble and slur to excess, often obscuring entire exchanges. Wright and Short are the worst offenders, but the entire cast shares some measure of guilt. When you have to concentrate so hard just to understand what people are saying, you inevitably become detached from the story, and can't fully absorb its mood or feel its impact. In that respect, 'Cadillac Records' kept losing me, and over time, had trouble winning me back.
The actors, though, give it all they've got, and their first-rate performances help keep the film on track. Wright leads the way with an uncanny interpretation of Muddy Waters, Short is electric as Little Walter, and Mos Def brings just the right mix of charisma, mischief, and unbridled energy to Chuck Berry. But if anyone steals the show, it's Beyoncé. Raw, riveting, and uninhibited, she takes herself musically and dramatically to another level as she inhabits Etta James. Her soulful renditions of At Last and I'd Rather Go Blind cut deep, and when she's strung out on heroin, mouthing off to Chess, or sexily sidling up to him, it's tough to believe this is the same actress who was so statuesque and remote in 'Dreamgirls.' Her revelatory work here may not win her any awards, but let's hope it awakens directors to her capabilities and lands her more meaty roles in the future.
'Cadillac Records' tells an important story and, for the most part, tells it well. It captures the personalities and social timbre of a pivotal period in both American and musical history with insight and grace, but still just misses the mark. As a cultural snapshot, it has merit; as entertainment, it's a mixed bag.
Sony's 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC transfer beautifully replicates the look and feel of this film. Per Martin's directive, hues remain slightly muted during the movie's first half, then bloom more freely once the blues transform into rock-'n'-roll and colorful Chuck Berry is introduced. Black levels are strong and dense, and excellent contrast lends the image a nice vibrancy. A definite film-like feel predominates, with faint grain adding a touch of period texture to the picture, but the print remains free of dirt, and no digital doctoring is evident.
The transfer nicely handles various source materials, such as newsreels and archival clips, without any jarring transitions. Shadow delineation is fine in all light levels, and fleshtones, which run the gamut, are uniformly spectacular. Close-ups are clear, but lack the 3-D elements and jaw-dropping details of the best 1080p renderings. Overall, the transfer is solid from start to finish, but doesn't possess any "wow" elements to warrant perfect marks.
Like action films, musicals demand audio with enough heft and nuance to lift audiences to a higher level. Unfortunately, the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track for 'Cadillac Records' fails to pass muster. This is by no means a weak track, but it doesn't do the music justice. When Beyoncé breaks into song, I want her vocals to wrap around me; I want the guitar and harmonica solos of Muddy Waters and Little Walter to reach out and grab me by the throat; I want to feel the hairs on the back of neck rise and my spine tingle during crescendos of emotion. Unfortunately, I didn't get any of that from this track. The basic elements are all there, but a vague blandness pervades the audio that sucks some of the raw passion from the tunes.
Surround action is limited at best, and bass frequencies seem muted, too, which is a shame considering how the blues rely on a strong lower register. Some decent front channel separation expands the sound field, and I'm guessing dialogue could be clear if the actors chose to enunciate, yet the speech patterns and dialects are often impossible to understand. With so much drawling and mumbling, I seriously considered turning on the subtitles to follow the conversations.
To power its way into our souls, 'Cadillac Records' requires a reference quality mix, and this standard effort doesn't get the job done. It's good audio, but not nearly good enough.
A solid array of supplements round out the disc, with most of the video in 1080p. The disc itself is designed as a replica of a 45 rpm record – an inspired touch.
Excellent performances and fine tunes distinguish 'Cadillac Records,' but Darnell Martin's chronicle of the early days of the modern music industry and the racial strife that influenced it never quite grabbed me like I hoped it would. Adrien Brody, Jeffrey Wright, and the dazzling Beyoncé Knowles fire up the burners, but Martin has trouble sustaining the flames. Maybe if the video and audio transfers were spectacular instead of just solid, I might be more enthusiastic about this disc. Still, it's definitely worth a look, especially for hardcore music fans.