“Cadillac Records” is a film about the Chess Record company, that tiny studio on the South side of Chicago that had as much to do with the birth of rock n roll as Elvis or the Beatles or anybody else better known. The Rolling Stones may be the kings of rock n roll, but the Rolling Stones listened to the names on Chess – Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Little Walter, to name a few. And John Lennon could never stop gushing about Chuck Berry, another Chess artist. That all of these Rock and Roll Hall of Famers – none of whom, strictly speaking, played rock and roll – came out of one studio, in a period of about fifteen years, is truly remarkable. Remarkable enough, in fact, to warrant a biopic.
The casting in “Cadillac Records” is spot-on. Jeffrey Wright is great as Muddy Waters, smooth, good-looking and slightly passive-aggressive – he’s the kind of guy that scares you to death when he lowers his voice, not when he raises it. Eamonn Walker has the right build to play Howlin’ Wolf, but also adds a certain wide-eyed intensity. He looks like he might record a hit song in the studio or burn it down, he hasn’t decided yet. And Mos Def – one of my favorite character actors – brings just the write note of corn and cockiness to Chuck Berry.
As a biopic, “Cadillac Records” is serviceable, but hardly remarkable. It moves along with a carefully measured pace, introducing new characters and spacing out the tragedy so that none of it gets confused or jumbled. As a result, the film never feels like it has a climax, or any momentum, or is really headed anywhere. It’s just a chronicle of things that happened, one after another, to a few people for a certain period of time.