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Cadillac Records (2008)

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Blu-ray Disc Released: 3/10/2009

All Ratings out of
Video: 1/2
Audio: 1/2

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 3/3/2009

No offense to the filmmakers which I'm going to implicate here, but watch any cable movie channel after 10pm or SciFi Channel most anytime and you'll see that many movies have a difficult time telling one story. Either through bad writing, bad directing, or bad editing, the viewer is left to wonder just what in the world the movie is trying to tell us. Keeping that in mind, it takes a special movie to be able to tell two stories. This usually takes place with one story dominating the surface, while another hovers in the background. The relative positions of the stories doesn't necessarily mean that one is more important than the others. Cadillac Records traces the lives and careers of some of America's great blues musicians and shows how they helped to shape modern music. But, it also illustrates the fact the fact that talent meant nothing in a time when race dominated everything else.

Cadillac Records opens in the late 1950s and introduces us to two men who live in different worlds. Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody) is a Polish immigrant living in Chicago who dreams of opening a nightclub which will cater to African-Americans. Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright) is a poof Black sharecropper living in Mississippi. When a traveling archivist records Muddy's music, this inspires him to go to the big city to seek his fortune. Muddy begins playing on street-corners and meets Geneva (Gabrielle Union), who gives him a place to live. Muddy then meets young harmonica wizard Little Walter (Columbus Short). These musicians begin to garner a reputation on the streets and Leonard, who has opened his club, seeks them out. Leonard feels that the music will sell and finances a recording session. When radio stations show an interest in Muddy's music, Leonard puts his financial existence on the line by starting Chess Records. Along with Muddy Waters and Little Walter, Leonard soon recruits other musicians, such as Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer) and Howlin' Wolf (Eamonn Walker). But, everyone soon learns that success can bring heartache and hardship.

As hinted at above, Cadillac Records plays like two movies in one. On the surface, the movie plays like a dramatized, feature-length version of an episode of Behind the Music. (Man, I miss that show. Why did they take it off?) The film tells the life-stories of Blues greats Muddy Waters, Little Walter (Of whom I'd never heard), Howlin' Wolf, and Willie Dixon, and how one man, Leonard Chess changed their lives. We see how Chess Records became like a family and how the group became interdependent. From there, Chuck Berry (played by Mos Def) and legendary songstress Etta James (played by Beyonce Knowles) join the label, taking the music in a different direction. We see how much all of these people loved the music, and how some of them lived their lyrics. We also see the toll which success can have on some people, as financial problems, relationship troubles (both with others and with each other) and battles with drugs and alcohol creep in...just like on Behind the Music.

Cadillac Records could have simply stuck with these tales and the movie would have had plenty of material. Although, the story would have been a bit trite and may have felt like something which we'd seen before. In order to be true to the time in which the story is taking place, the movie also tackled the racial issues which the artist and Leonard Chess faced. We see how Chess struggles to get the music, which is termed as "race music", on the radio. We see Chuck Berry being turned away from a club. We see Little Walter assaulted by the police. And in what is quite possibly the saddest scene, we see how Chess must rent-out a restaurant just so Etta can go there. We also see how Chess is treated for having his artists as his friends. The movie also displays a more subtle race-relations issue with the way in which Chess compensates his musicians. He buys everyone a Cadillac (hence the film's title) and he buys houses for some of the performers. And yet, they are always broke. The movie is never truly clear on this point, but did Chess not trust them with money -- the money which they had earned. (If Behind the Music has taught us anything, it's that musicians are not good with money...except for Vanilla Ice. Who saw that coming?)

While Cadillac Records does little to break new ground, it's a solid and informative movie. I had heard of most of the musicians here, but knew little about them, so I certainly learned a lot. Most any music fan will appreciate how the story traces the roots of Blues, R&B, and Rock, and how we see that The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, and Led Zeppelin was influenced by the Chess label. It also helps to illustrate how far we've come in the past 50 years.

Cadillac Records goes into the studio courtesy of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 33 Mbps. The image is sharp and clear, showing no overt grain and no defects from the source material. The colors are good, and the image is never overly dark or bright. The level of depth is good and in several shots the foreground is nicely delineated from the background. The Disc offers a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 1.7 Mbps. This is a notably low bitrate for a Sony Blu-ray and this may have contributed to some of the problems with this track. Let me start by saying that the music sounds great. We hear some songs in their entirety and the reproduction is top-notch. Having said that, the dialogue is incredibly muddy (no pun intended). Even with the volume turned up higher than normal, I had difficulty understanding the dialogue and was finally forced to turn on the subtitles. The audio has very little presence and the surround is weak. It wasn't until I finished the film and heard the audio on the menu (which is quite good) that I realized how lackluster the in-film audio is.

The Cadillac Records Blu-ray Disc contains a handful of extras. We begin with an AUDIO COMMENTARY from Writer/Director Darnell Martin. The Disc contains five DELETED SCENES, which run about five minutes. The only moment of real interest here is when we see that Chess donated money to Martin Luther King. "Playing Chess: The Making of Cadillac Records" (26 minutes) features a good amount of comments from the cast and filmmakers. The speakers talk about the characters, the story, and the deeper socio-political meanings of this musical journey. There is than a closer look at the cast and the music. In reality, this is more of an overview of the story, as there's little talk of where the film was shot, etc. "Once Upon a Blues: Cadillac Records by Design" (16 minutes) contains comments from Costume Designer Johnette Boone, Production Designer Linda Burton, and Writer/Director Darnell Martin who discuss the look of the film and the challenge of shooting a period piece. (We do learn here that the movie was shot in New Jersey.) There are some interesting comments here about how the designers only worry what is actually going to be in the shot.

Review Copyright 2009 by Mike Long