Fans of musical dramas may experience some deja vu while watching "Cadillac Records"; the story is remarkably similar to one told in the middle of 2006's "Dreamgirls," in a montage sequence set to "Steppin' to the Bad Side."
There's the plucky upstart studio where African American musicians are pioneering new kinds of music. There's the driven record-label owner who's dispensing payola to DJs, trying to buy his way past institutionalized racism and cross over from the R&B ghetto to the white-dominated pop charts. There's the white group that steals a black musician's song and turns it into a hit single. There are lots of flashy new cars as symbols of success.
In "Dreamgirls," the sequence is a fictionalized amalgam of events from the Motown era. In "Cadillac Records," it's straight-up history. The film may also cause flashbacks for longtime Chicago residents, because there's a chance they lived through these stories, when South Side brothers Leonard and Phil Chess relaunched Aristocrat as Chess Records and started releasing albums from the likes of Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Bo Diddley, Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker, Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin' Wolf, Chuck Berry and many more. "Cadillac Records" shrugs off Phil Chess and the label's early years to focus on Leonard, on some of the label's biggest personalities and on the music they made.
The story starts in Chicago in the 1940s, with Leonard Chess ( Adrien Brody) as a young Polish immigrant promising his girlfriend's father that he'll transcend his poor origins: "Don't worry where I'm from, my wife's gonna drive a Cadillac." That's the closest the film comes to explaining Chess' obsession with the cars, which he later dispenses to his successful recording artists like badges of honor. When Leonard takes up with Muddy Waters (played with growling charisma by Jeffrey Wright, also recently seen as Gen. Colin L. Powell in "W." and James Bond's CIA buddy in "Quantum of Solace"), his label takes off, and he rapidly brings in talents such as Little Walter (Columbus Short), Berry ( Mos Def), Howlin' Wolf (Eamonn Walker) and Etta James (executive producer Beyoncé Knowles). But as the business comes together, his stars fall apart, troubled by various vices and deep-seated emotional issues. It's almost as though singing the blues isn't a cheery calling.
Those vices provide a bunch of riveting stories, including Berry's arrest under the Mann Act and Little Walter's public alcoholic meltdown. But they're presented as a series of disjointed anecdotes, bookended by overripe narration from Cedric the Entertainer as Dixon.
Writer-director Darnell Martin leaves a lot of key issues dangling, particularly about Leonard Chess' motives, and whether, as the Waters character repeatedly claims, he's cheating his artists. Oscar winner Brody ("The Pianist") plays Chess as an enigma, a guarded man who makes for a frail lead. He's a shadowy background figure uncomfortably placed at center stage.
Fortunately, that stage is crowded with broader, more intense characters who keep the energy level high. In particular, Mos Def makes a terrific Berry, all flash and confidence, and Wright offers a memorably soulful take on Waters, whether he's strutting, singing, suffering or all three. Walker's Howlin' Wolf is a deep-throated, pride-filled bear of a man who dominates the screen.
Among them, they offer portraits that sometimes veer toward caricature but that fill out the film almost as well as its rich soundtrack.
"Cadillac Records" could use more music and less mugging -- Knowles' take on James in particular is convincing only when she's singing, which is fitting for a woman whose acting skills come in a distant second to her voice. But after every misstep, the film seems to find its feet again. Just as in real life, no matter what else is going on in these musicians' lives, the music makes everything much better.