[Screen It]

(2008) (Adrien Brody, Jeffrey Wright) (R)

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Drama: A white record producer recruits, records and then promotes various black singers and musicians during the racially turbulent 1950s and '60s.
Leonard Chess (ADRIEN BRODY) is a white man in 1940s era Chicago who opens a nightclub in a black neighborhood, eventually getting sharecropper turned amazing guitarist and singer Muddy Waters (JEFFREY WRIGHT) to play there. The latter is so good that following the club's convenient demise by fire, Leonard opens up Chess Records in the 1950s, recording and then promoting Muddy's music around the country.

Leonard's financial gamble worries his wife, Revetta (EMMANUELLE CHRIQUI), while Muddy's philandering ways don't sit well with his wife back home, Geneva (GABRIELLE UNION), but their work eventually pays off handsomely, allowing Leonard to sign other performers such as harmonica man Little Walter (COLUMBUS SHORT), intense singer Howlin' Wolf (EAMONN WALKER), as well as songwriter Willie Dixon (CEDRIC THE ENTERTAINER) whose work takes the artists to new heights.

As the years wear on, Leonard signs other performers, including Chuck Berry (MOS DEF) and then Etta James (BEYONCE KNOWLES), but must contend with Muddy's jealousy and declining record sales along with his artists' various predicaments, all in an era of continued racism and segregation.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
As uncertain and precarious as life often turns out to be, it seems like having some sort of "how to live" playbook would be a good thing to possess. If the movies about them are any indication, it appears that a number of legendary singers and musicians have been reading out of the same, if flawed one.

That's the guide that says to start with a troubled childhood, but still manage to develop an amazing musical talent. Then don't think anything's going to come of that until you're unexpectedly discovered and you suddenly become the next big thing, shooting up the charts.

Speaking of shooting up, some sort of addiction is then required (be that drugs, booze or women) that threatens to derail your success, all while you become suspicious and/or paranoid about management taking advantage of you. At that point, you can either succumb to one or more of those or other issues, or rise above them and persevere.

We've seen such a tale countless time before on the big screen (granted, most are, coincidentally or not, based on some degree of fact). Thus, when the latest, "Cadillac Records," drives up, it can't avoid looking, smelling and sounding a lot like its predecessors. To be fair, the film isn't about just one famous artist, and it's really more of a brief, CliffsNotes style history of the real-life Chess Records that sprung to life in the early 1950s.

While the tale of two white brothers (narrowed down here to just one) bringing black artists and their music to the segregated masses is obviously an intriguing one, writer/director Darnell Martin -- taking a break from helming all sorts of episodes for various TV shows -- has bitten off a bit more than he can successfully chew and cinematically regurgitate for viewers.

Beyond the unavoidable episodic and fragmented nature of such a piece (as will happen when presenting a "this happened, followed by that, and then this" story that spans the decades), the filmmaker doesn't just focus on one of the label's successful artists (and there were many). Instead, the plot starts with Muddy Waters and then moves on to Chuck Berry and Etta James, while also featuring lesser known figures such as Little Walter and Howlin' Wolf.

With so many and a running time short of two hours, there's only so much Martin can do with each, thus shortchanging most of them, although the main gist focuses on the ever-evolving relationship between owner/manager Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody) and performer Waters (Jeffrey Wright). Even so, most of the aforementioned musical biopic ingredients still end up on the screen, thus giving the pic the apparently unavoidable "been there, seen/heard that before" aura that diminishes a lot of its dramatic firepower.

What keeps it involving, however, is the terrific period music, most of which is guaranteed to induce toe-tapping and/or slight head-bopping to the beat, as well as some fun performances by the likes of Eamonn Walker as the super-intense Wolf and Mos Def creating an infectiously entertaining Berry.

Wright and Brody are solid in their performances, but Gabrielle Union is underused as the "suffering wife back home" character, and Beyonce does a surprisingly awful job of lip-synching to her own versions of various Etta James classics (her dramatic moments aren't as obviously false, but still aren't great).

And perhaps that's the film's biggest issue, it doesn't feel that way as a whole either. With too many characters and not enough time to give any of them the attention they deserve, and with the singer and musician biopic elements rearing their apparently obligatory heads, there's nothing special about the pic.

That is, except for the music, but one can hear that (via the soundtrack or, better yet, the original recordings by the real people), without having to sit through the redundant and recycled storylines. "Cadillac Records" -- named after the performers' penchant for showing off their success via that automotive make -- rarely gets out of second gear and thus rates as just a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed December 2, 2008 / Posted December 5, 2008

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