Musical biopics have been a big deal in recent years: Dreamgirls, Ray, and Walk the Line were all Oscar-certified prestige pictures. But in a film season where the likes of Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Will Smith, and Leonardo DiCaprio are all dangling Oscar bait, Cadillac Records is a mere "B" movie. This fictionalized account of the Chicago-based blues and R&B label Chess Records is one of the most spirited and enjoyable movies I've seen this year, but, in cultural terms, it's being marginalized, just like the "race" records Chess produced in the days before "rock-and-roll" was a household phrase. Of course, Chess stars Muddy Waters, Etta James, and even Chuck Berry don't have as much mainstream cachet as the Supremes, Ray Charles, and Johnny Cash, but Cadillac Records might help change that if more people saw it.
The film is written and directed by television veteran Darnell Martin. According to Wikipedia, Martin was the first African-American woman to direct a film for a major Hollywood studio, with 1994's I Like It Like That, a film I'd never heard of. In the interim, she seems to have spent most of her time directing Law & Order episodes. But, if Cadillac Records is an accurate reflection of her talent, the entertainment industry has not treated Martin well. The performances in Cadillac Records are so uniformly excellent it can't just be a result of inspired casting. Someone behind the camera knew how to stage a scene and get the most out of actors.
The recording-session scenes in Cadillac Records rival Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight and the opening and closing moments of Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky as the most vibrant things I've seen at the movies this year: a sweaty Waters (Jeffrey Wright, in one of the year's best performances) hammering out guitar riffs as a coltish Little Walter (Orlando Short) darts around on harmonica; a lit-up Walter swaggering through "My Babe"; a leering, hungry Howlin' Wolf (Eamon Walker, so grand in a small role that he's begging for his own movie) belting out "Smokestack Lightning" to Waters' woman while Waters watches, bemused, from the control room; a fragile but furious James (Beyoncé Knowles) slow-burning through "All I Could Do Is Cry" after a testy exchange with label owner Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody).
The movie that surrounds these show-stopping set pieces is formulaic and takes more than its share of factual liberties but is perhaps all the more satisfying for these ostensible flaws. Rather than striving for any big statement, there's a sense of modest, music-loving joy here reminiscent of other "B"-movie rock-and-roll flicks such as American Hot Wax or The Buddy Holly Story. This is a movie likely to get lost in the crush of higher-profile year-end releases, but it deserves better.