Terrific performances make mature musical biopic memorable.
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A Lot or a Little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that this biopic about several blues musicians co-stars teen favorite Beyonce Knowles but is much grittier than her thematically similar Dreamgirls. Although Adrien Brody and Jeffrey Wright are the top-billed actors, Beyonce's role has been played up to attract younger audiences. Like most musician biopics, the drama portrays performers dealing with sex, drugs, violence, and fame. Strong language is frequent (primarily the "mother" of all swear words), and there are many scenes of musicians sleeping with eager groupies. Almost everyone has a drinking problem, and two characters are drug users -- one has a disturbing overdose scene. Consumerism is limited to the titular Cadillacs, which are a pivotal aspect of the story.
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What's the Story?
CADILLAC RECORDS is based on the rise of Chess Records, a Chicago music label that catapulted blues and crossover musicians Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), Chuck Berry (Yasiin Bey), and Etta James (Beyonce Knowles) -- to name a few -- to stardom under founder Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody). Chess, a Caucasian man with dollar signs in his eyes, promotes his African-American performers -- starting with Waters -- via payola to DJs. Once their songs are hits, Chess rewards his acts with brand-new Cadillacs (what he doesn't tell them is that the money for the fancy rides comes out of their royalties). Like several biopics gelled into one, the film chronicles how Chess' slate of legendary recording artists paved the way for the desegregation of the airwaves, the international appeal of the blues, and the birth of rock 'n' roll.
Is It Any Good?
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.
Talk to Your Kids About ...
Families can talk about the film's messages about the entertainment industry. How do the characters change when fame arrives? Also, how does racism figures in depictions of early rock 'n' roll? How did Muddy Waters' music -- and later Chuck Berry -- affect the division between "race music" and "mainstream" music? Was Chess Records' founder exploiting the African-American musicians who made him rich, or was he an open-minded creative producer willing to buck racial norms? (Or both?) Sex, drugs/alcohol, and violence followed most of the blues artists; why do you think the musicians struggled with all these vices?
- In theaters: December 5, 2008
- On DVD or streaming: March 10, 2009
- Cast: Adrien Brody, Beyoncé, Jeffrey Wright
- Director: Darnell Martin
- Studio: Columbia Tristar
- Genre: Drama
- Run time: 108 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: pervasive language and some sexuality
- Last updated: January 11, 2023
Our Editors Recommend
Broadway + Beyoncé = big, boomy musical fun.
Excellent portrayal of extraordinary musician.
Walk the Line
Fascinating biopic, best for mature teens and up.
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