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Vol. LXII, No. 50
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
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For more movie summaries, see Kam’s Kapsules.

JUST SIGN ON THE DOTTED LINE: Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody) would drive his flashy black Cadillac convertible through the South and sign promising black artists to his record company, Chess Records. Unfortunately, the contracts were not favorable to the artists, however, Leonard would sweeten the deal by giving the signees a brand new Cadillac as a signing bonus.

Cadillac Records: Biopic Describes Rise of Legendary Record Company

Kam Williams

After Lejzor and Fiszel Czyz’s family came to the United States from Poland in 1928, their parents changed the family’s surname to “Chess” and started calling their boys “Leonard” and “Phil.” By the late forties, the siblings had achieved their American Dream by establishing themselves in the liquor business when they opened up a number of bars and nightclubs in the black community on the South Side of Chicago.

The majority of the performers who were booked into their nightclubs were musicians from Mississippi who played the delta blues. Recognizing the commercial potential of the music style, the brothers founded a record company that signed such promising artists as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Bo Diddley, Sonny Boy Williamson, and John Lee Hooker.

This was the birth of Chess Records, an industry giant which made a mark on the music business for a quarter of a century. During that time the company also ventured into R&B and jazz by recording artists such as Chuck Berry, Etta James, James Moody, Lou Donaldson, Yusef Lateef, and Aretha Franklin.

Distilling the rise and fall of Chess Records into a two hour melodrama meant that the movie would focus on the more sensational aspects of its past. Consequently, many of the company’s less colorful and controversial characters — including some cultural icons — ended up by being given little or no attention. Instead, the film focused on the more spectacular personalities that were signed by the company.

Written and directed by Darnell Martin, Cadillac Records presents Leonard (Adrien Brody) as the driving force behind Chess Records, while portraying the contribution of Phil (Shiloh Fernandez) as little more than an historical footnote. In the movie, Leonard is a flamboyant character who roamed through the South on the Chitlin’ Circuit in a Cadillac convertible, searching for black musicians who were eager to become famous, and having them sign unfavorable contracts.

He apparently gave each victim a key to a flashy Cadillac as a signing bonus, but later cheated them out of their royalty payments if their songs became hits.

In his personal life, Len was unfaithful to his wife (Emmanuelle Chriqui) and had affairs with his protégé, Etta James (Beyoncé), and others.

Additional subplots revolve around hot-headed Little Walter (Columbus Short) who has run-ins with an impersonator, the police, and his band mate Muddy Waters’ (Jeffrey Wright). The tawdry story in which Chuck Berry (Mos Def) is put in prison for having sex with a minor is also in the film.

However, the most memorable parts of the picture are the classic tunes that are actually sung, not lip-synced, by the gifted cast. Highlights include Beyoncé’s rendition of “At Last,” “Maybelline” by Mos Def, “Hoochie Coochie Man” by Jeffrey Wright, “My Babe” by Columbus Short and “Smokestack Lightnin’” by Eamonn Walker as Howlin’ Wolf. If you are willing to overlook the liberties that are taken with the facts, such as the omission of Aretha Franklin, who recorded her very first album with Chess Records in 1956, Cadillac Records provides a nostalgic trip down memory lane.

Excellent (3½ stars). Rated R for sexuality, ethnic slurs, and pervasive profanity. Running time: 109 minutes. Studio: TriStar Pictures.

For more movie summaries, see Kam’s Kapsules.

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