Cadillac Records, the story of a rowdy musical revolution and the record label that helped to launch it, begins in 1941, when Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright) is a sharecropper playing slide guitar under the blazing hot Mississippi sun. Heading up to Chicago, he electrifies that guitar and hooks up with Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody), a nice Jewish boy who’s been looking to do something not so nice. Chess opens a nightclub, where the performances sometimes end in gunfire, and when the club burns down, he starts to record the new sounds he’s been featuring there. His label, Chess Records, is a Midwestern precursor to Sun Records, located behind a storefront (with rotating vinyl logo) on Chicago’s South Side. When the records sell, he gives each of his musicians a new Cadillac, neglecting to mention that it came out of their royalties.
It’s tempting to say Cadillac Records is about the moment that the blues turned into rock & roll. Only that wouldn’t be true. The film’s boisterous fun kicks off from its recognition that the blues already was rock & roll; no ”transformation” was necessary. The writer-director Darnell Martin, who made the tough and nimble I Like It Like That (1994), is out to capture those days in all their proud, violent glory. She blasts rhythm & blues out of its museum-piece quaintness. Cadillac Records lacks a center — Leonard is more like a hub (he isn’t sketched in) — yet it’s an enjoyable ramble, with a feel for what made the early days of rock as wild as any that followed.
Wright plays Waters as an elegant tomcat in boxy suits who doesn’t pretend he can love one woman at a time. His street counterpart is Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker), a scary customer who stares at Chess from behind the recording-studio glass with a look of barely contained homicide. Then there’s Chuck Berry — played by Mos Def, who nails the legend’s apple-cheeked charisma as well as his saucy grooves. Just as Berry cracks the pop charts, he’s sidetracked by the law. (Coincidence? You decide.) His slot gets filled by Etta James, a torch rocker and junkie played by Beyoncé Knowles, who just about burns a hole in the screen with her sultry torment. As a woman who rocked the house but could get no satisfaction, Beyoncé does a Lady Sings the Blues in miniature. Now will someone give this lady a great lead role? B+