As a story, Cadillac Records is as melodramatic as every other rags-to-riches, Behind the Music tale of tortured musicians. But despite director Darnell Martin's creative liberties (in real life, Chess had a brother named Phil, and the Chess lineup included other key players who are completely missing from the film, most notably Bo Diddley), a collection of standout performances transforms a standard genre timeline of milestones into a fast, funny, and even thrilling ride down musical lane. The soundtrack includes killer renditions of classics like "At Last," "Mannish Boy," "Maybelline," "Smokestack Lightning," and "No Particular Place to Go."
Led by Brody and Wright, the cast is truly superb (the only weak link is Cedric the Entertainer's underwhelming narration). Wright nails every role he's in, and his Muddy -- the bluesmen who "sings about pain but doesn't live it" -- is just one more example of why he's one of the most versatile actors working today. Eamonn Walker is a commanding scene-stealer as scary, sexy, gravelly voiced bluesman Howlin' Wolf; Columbus Short should propel himself into his first leading role after his remarkable turn as Waters' protégé Little Walter; and Def is hilariously perfect as charismatic, duck-walking Berry. Even Knowles, looking spot-on as the frosted-haired James, proves she has some acting chops hidden beneath that gorgeous, impenetrable persona. With such notable portrayals, the film's formulaic flaws are all forgiven, and the audience will walk out humming the tunes.