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United States 2008
Directed by
Darnell Martin
110 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

Cadillac Records

Rock’n’roll history movies can often be little more than exercises in ersatz nostalgia but writer/director Darnell Martin’s potted history of Chess Records, although a little on the too glossy side is surprisingly good thanks to her judicious handling of the material and the strong performances. The film begins in the early 1950s in Chicago with the establishment of the Chess Records by Leonard Chess  (Adrien Brody) and ends some two decades later when the classic years of rock’n’roll being over and Chess sells the studio.

How much of the film is historically true I cannot say but it hums along nicely. Leonard Chess is presented not à la John Hammond, as a man who loved the music, but rather as a guy with a good ear and an even better nose for money. Brody is an unlikely choice to play the character but he is serviceable in what is in reality a fairly secondary role.

Wisely Martin focuses on the big names of the Chess label and her economy and the excellently staged performances (apparently by the actors themselves ), which quite unusually are played in full or near to it, means that we get the music we want to hear with some historical background to go with it: Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), Little Walter (Columbus Short), Howlin' Wolf (Eamonn Walker),  Willie Dixon (Cedric The Entertainer), Chuck Berry (Mos Def), and Etta James (Beyoncé Knowles) are showcased with Eamonn Walker standing out as Howlin' Wolf and Beyoncé doing moving versions of the James’ classics "I'd Rather Go Blind," and "At Last." Even the arrival of The Rolling Stones is handled well given the difficulty that this presents.

Needless to say this is one for those who love the music. If that’s you it’s likely to prove a pleasant surprise.




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