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Cadillac Records (TriStar Pictures, R)

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cad_square.jpgMany of them lived hard lives filled with disappointment and seemed to expect more around every corner. It makes a certain amount of sense, then, that success before you've gotten your head on straight might make you act a fool.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Cadillac Records is a classic music bio in every sense of the phrase. We've seen these movies before: a period piece with hugely talented main characters that drink, do drugs, whore around and generally act crazy. And, really, that's not a bad thing.

Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody) was a white man who loved "race" music in 1940s Chicago. After Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright) had an appearance at Chess's club that ended in gunfire, Chess invited Waters to record his music...and Chess Records was born.

Waters was soon joined on the label by future hitmakers Little Walter (Columbus Short), Howlin' Wolf (Eamonn Walker), Chuck Berry (Mos Def) and Etta James (Beyonce Knowles). Chess's stable of stars brought in big bucks, and when they did, a brand new Cadillac was part of the prize.

As with any good biopic, we get to see the real struggles of our tortured heroes. Waters' humble beginnings as a share cropper in Mississippi, Walter's alcoholism, Berry's trouble with the law and James' drug addiction all make appearances. Writer/director Darnell Martin makes no excuses for bad behavior, but this is one instance when it doesn't feel necessary, either.

It usually drives me up the wall to see people who have so much going for them (talent, money, fame) screw it all up in fits of entitlement and stupidity. The people who made Chess Records big weren't spoiled stars, though. Many of them lived hard lives filled with disappointment and seemed to expect more around every corner. It makes a certain amount of sense, then, that success before you've gotten your head on straight might make you act a fool.

Any film biography can be dry as toast without solid acting driving it. The performances in Cadillac Records have just the electricity a movie like this needs. Brody does steady work as Chess, but the standouts here are from the actors portraying the musicians. Wright is strong, as usual, as Waters. Every scene with him in it is just that much better. Walker gives his small role as Howlin' Wolf depth and enough creepiness to keep it interesting, while Mos Def proves once again that he can do pretty much anything.

Short has what could end up being his breakout performance as Little Walter. In Short's hands, he's a broken young man who was destructive and a bit crazy before he ever even touched booze. And, if you're wondering whether or not Beyonce should keep getting movie roles, the answer is a definitive yes. The Houston-bred good girl was absolutely believable as the smoking, drinking, drugging and cursing James. If Beyonce keeps stretching herself like this, she may grow into a full-fledged movie star. | Adrienne Jones

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