Chronicling the rise of Chess Records and its recording artists in Chicago of the 1950s and 60s, the film follows the early, turbulent lives of some of America’s greatest musical legends. How the blues gave birth to rock ‘n’ roll at a dingy bar on the rough South Side of Chicago in 1947 follows an ambitious young Polish immigrant, bar owner Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody)), who hires a talented blues combo that includes quiet and thoughtful guitar prodigy Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright) and colourful harmonica player Little Walter (Columbus Short). Fascinated by the sound of the music – and eager to cash in on the record burgeoning record business – Chess arranges a recording session for Waters, whose early recordings start moving up the rhythm and blues charts.
Chess treats his musicians like family, and famously he buys them a Cadillac when they record their first hit record – although the line between business and personal sometimes causes conflict with his increasingly talented and successful stable of artists. As well as Muddy and Little Walter, there are Big Willie Dixon (Cedric The Entertainer), Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker), Chuck Berry (Mos Def), and the first talented black woman to make a successful mainstream crossover, Etta James (Beyonce Knowles). As rock‘n’roll grows more popular, the Chess artists find themselves revered by a new generation of musicians, but along the way have each earned and lost a small fortune on booze, women and the high life as their addictions begin to take their toll. Even as tragedy befalls, their music and their spirit remain strong: as the sixties wind down and Leonard Chess gets out of the record business, the blues live on.
An endearing portrait that looks at one of the geographical centres that gave birth to rock – postwar Chicago and the musicians who gravitated there. The film celebrates the music through shorthand glances at the people who made it all happen – and, of course, a soundtrack that itself alone is worth the price of admission. All the actors give a fair account of themselves, including Cedric The Entertainer who plays narrator to the changing faces who come and go over the years. Revelation of the movie is Beyonce, a born actress if ever there was one. Cadillac Records is really only an appetiser, and way too short to fully document the blues and its rebel baby – rock ‘n’ roll. For all of its brevity, however, it still packs a rhythmic punch that’ll have your toes tapping all evening.