Combustible Celluloid
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With: Adrien Brody, Jeffrey Wright, Gabrielle Union, Columbus Short, Cedric the Entertainer, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Eamonn Walker, Mos Def, Beyoncé Knowles, Eric Bogosian
Written by: Darnell Martin
Directed by: Darnell Martin
MPAA Rating: R for pervasive language and some sexuality
Running Time: 109
Date: 12/05/2008

Cadillac Records (2008)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Mojo Not Workin'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Etta James (Beyoncé Knowles) blasts her way through a sad song, but it's not good enough. Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody) taunts her and claims she's not "woman enough" for such a song. Didn't anyone ever walk out on her and leave her heartbroken? Take that and put it in the song, he suggests. She steps up for another take, and -- although she has tears in her eyes now -- it sounds pretty much the same. The main trouble with Cadillac Records is that no one took aside writer/director Darnell Martin with the same advice. Scene after scene, Cadillac Records is thin, flat and rote. Sometime in the 1940s, Chess runs a junkyard and decides to get into "race music." He forms a record label and signs Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), Little Walter (Columbus Short), Howlin' Wolf (Eamonn Walker), Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer), Etta James and Chuck Berry (Mos Def). The movie charts the rise and fall of the label without ever centering on any characters or relationships; it's history without personality. There are a few nice, early scenes with Chess and Muddy touring together, sharing meals and getting the stink-eye from local rednecks, but the movie shies away from developing this friendship. Likewise, the rivalry between Muddy and Wolf is never satisfactorily explored, nor the budding romance between Chess and Etta. Moreover, the picture is rife with all the rock biopic clichés that were ridiculed and should have been buried forever in last year's spoof Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. Wright is so good with his line readings and facial expressions that he often manages to fill in the many blanks in Muddy's character, but I wouldn't call it one of the year's most accomplished performances; it's more like a last-minute rescue. Mos Def is fun, but his performance isn't particularly deep. Interestingly, there's another Leonard Chess movie floating around, Who Do You Love, starring Alessandro Nivola. According to reports, it's supposed to be quite good and has yet to pick up a distributor. Leonard Chess may once have cared about injecting fire and life and personality into his product, but clearly the movie business does not.

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