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Blu-ray Review

DVD cover

Cadillac Records


Starring: Adrien Brody, Beyoncé Knowles and Jeffrey Wright
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
RRP: £22.99
Certificate: 15
Available 20 July 2009

Leonard Chess, a polish immigrant, refuses to accept his lot in life and dreams of bigger things, especially Cadillacs. Opening a club, he starts to gather together artists which would eventually become some of the biggest names in blues. From club to record company is a logical step and Leonard opens Chess Records...

Cadillac Records (2008) is a music biopic directed by Darnell Martin, which charts the rise of the real life record label Chess Records and the artists it promoted. It’s a story which charts the rise of the blues into the greater consciousness of America, but also it is the story of the friendship between Muddy Waters and Leonard Chess. The film charts their rise and their eventual implosion created by success. The film won four awards and was nominated for a further fourteen, including a Golden Globe.

The film’s two main faults are, firstly, that it tries to cover too much information in a given time, leaving a lot of the plot elements feeling rushed or not adequately explored. Are we watching a film about the birth of an influential music form, or possibly about Leonard Chess’s sometimes dubious business practices? Chess Records was originally founded by Leonard and his brother Phil, who doesn’t even appear in the film. The reality is that you will watch this film for its music rather than its historical accuracy. Secondly, music biopics seem to have hit a bit of a rut as far as structure is concerned and this one barely deviates from a tried and trusted formula.

Of course, on the plus side, there is the music, the influence of which should not be underestimated as it became the root of most rock and roll music. Adrien Brody (The Pianist (2002), King Kong (2005)) plays Leonard, good friend to Muddy Waters and a publicist for black music, but a man who was not above bribing DJ’s to get his records played, or giving his artists Cadillacs which were actually paid for out of their own royalties. The film skirts around just how much he ripped off anyone signed to his label.

Jeffrey Wright (Ali (2001), Quantum of Solace (2008)) turns in a great performance as Muddy Waters, which creates a natural friendship with Leonard at a time in America’s history when such a thing would be seen as an aberration in many States. He plays friendship as well as he plays confrontation, especially when it comes to Howlin' Wolf played by Eamonn Walker, who imbues his character with an unnerving level of quiet and not so quiet aggression. Even with such perfectly cast actors Mos Def stands out with his ironic and often amusing portrayal of Chuck Berry. The rest of the cast, and to be honest they are too numerous to mention, all turn in good performances, so it is difficult to know who gets the acting laurels. Beyoncé certainly turns in a memorable performance, only hampered by memories of Diana Ross’s portrayal of Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues (1972).

A film about music would be lost without a great audio track and the English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 reproduces the nice rich bass with a clean top end, it’s just a shame that the music didn’t jump out of the film a bit more. It's good as a soundtrack, but wont reproduce the effect of playing a CD. The track also is available in French and Spanish, descriptive English, Czechoslovakian, Hungarian and Polish, with options for subtitles in twenty-four languages, plus subtitles, in five European languages, for the commentary. BD live is available, but as review discs go out before the release of the film, no content is available at this time. The picture transfer is a pretty solid affair and the transitions between the various film sources don’t pull you out of the narrative.

Under the special features you have a full length commentary by writer/director Darnell Martin, her commentary is both enthusiastic and knowledgeable. The Chess Record Player which allows you to create your own playlists which can be emailed to friends. This is another nice innovation in the technology, but at present takes too long to load up. You get five deleted scenes, Leonard Chess Introduces Muddy to his Brother Phil (1 min, 01 sec), Pot Strong Dies (41 sec), Revette and Leonard Chess in Restaurant (1 min, 18 sec), Muddy Locked out of Studio (1 min, 21 sec) and an alternative version of the same scene (35 sec), some nice vignettes, but nothing that really expands the film.

Now on to the meatier featurettes, of which unfortunately there are only two. This section kicks off with, Playing Chess: The Making of Cadillac Records (26 min, 10 sec) which big ups the movie, with contributions from the cast and shots from the film, it’s the usual watch once affair, Once Upon a Blues: Cadillac Records by Design (15 min, 37 sec) is an odd little number which starts by saying that the story is an important one to tell as no one remembers the artists, what?! No one remembers Muddy Waters, Etta James or Chuck Berry? I beg to differ. Anyway after that little own goal, the piece settles down to explain how the designers strove for historical accuracy in both set and costume design. The disc is rounded off with four trailers.

So, okay, it’s a bit formulaic and a tad historically inaccurate, but the music and performances pull the film above its own failings. The combination of direction and cinematography, which satisfyingly evokes the flavour of America in the fifties, creates, overall, a very satisfying experience.


Charles Packer

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