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IN SHORT: All hail Rock and Roll! [Rated R for Pervasive Language and Some Sexuality. 110 minutes]
The story of Chess Records is an interesting one. Depending on your love of and/or knowledge of the early days of blues and rock and roll music, Cadillac Records will either strike the viewer as an OK movie with good rock soundtrack or a better than average movie with great music. We make the differentiation because there are still some folk out there that don't acknowledge rock and roll as "real" music. Yeah, it makes no sense to us either but it's true. FYI, Cranky's first career was in the rock radio biz and we place Cadillac Records in the second category. We knew the music. We were captivated by the story.
That story, which pretty much charts the origins of rock music and the rock radio business, is more coherent than yours Cranky could be in trying to repeat it all here. Simply put, the film traces a whole mess o' history, from Alan Lomax (Tony Bentley) of the Library of Congress lugging a transcription recorder into the Mississippi delta to record the blues playing of a plantation worker named Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright); of Waters relocation to Chicago where he played on the street, met his wife and was discovered by one Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody) whose nightclub "catered to negroes." Central to this part of the story is another blues musician, Little Walter (Columbus Short), who lived life hard and fast.
While we are introduced to Muddy Waters and the Blues by way of the plantations of Mississippi, Cadillac Records focuses on the control of the recorded music by Chess, whose career as a nightclub owner ends mysteriously as a fire destroys his club. Chess, now partnered with a mysterious blonde with a huge cadillac; owner of her own race records label, used his insurance money to take the best of the players from his club and put them in a recording studio. Radio of the 1950s was split down the color line and while Chess paid off DJs to play his records, which forced a split from that aforementioned partner. Or, to paraphrase a key line in the film, delivered by legendary rock jock Alan Freed (Eric Bogosian): "The performers get famous. Chess got $$rich$$"
When all is said and done, it was the country tinged music of one Chuck Berry (Mos Def) that brought radio's color barrier crashing down. Berry's own, sad story forms the backbone of a second part of the film. Wait . . . there's more . . .
The "cadillac" referenced in the title refers to the bonus awarded to the musicians by Chess who achieved the coveted #1 position on the radio charts of the day. Repeating the obvious: Hitmakers got to pick their car. Chess got to cook the books. And in the middle are conflicts with Chess hitmakers such as Howlin' Wolf (Eamonn Walker), attempts to stabilize the sound of the label by having one Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer) write most of the songs and, finally, another attempt to cross over into white "popular music" radio via the song stylings of one Etta James (Beyonce Knowles). Ms James' personal story was one unknown to Cranky, even as we knew all the words to her monster hit "At Last (My Love Has Come Along)" James' story, and involvement with Chess, is the third backbone of this tale -- yeah, three backbones. This is one sturdy story!
As a film that tries to cram decades of history into a short period of time, Cadillac Records is an entertaining sit. What kicks it over the red line is the performances of the stars, recreating the original hits. The film soundtrack will have these new performances and will be be worth the purchase price as well. But if you're broke, just do as Cranky do and add a couple of bucks to the usual dollar rating <g>
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Cadillac Records, he would have paid . . .
Cadillac Records is a good date flick, a fine bit of history wrapped around classic rock and roll that had us lip synching in the dark.
Sad but true <g>
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