Cadillac Records (Blu-ray)
Directed by Darnell Martin
Studio: Sony - Tri Star
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:11080pAVC codec
Running Time: 108 minutes
Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1 English, French
Subtitles: English, French
MSRP: $ 39.95
Release Date: March 10, 2009
Review Date: February 28, 2009
The rags-to-riches rise and fall of Chess Records during a nineteen year period that encompasses the turbulent years of desegregation forms the basis of Cadillac Records. Though perhaps too fragmented and slightly superficial in its storytelling to do full justice to the personalities and events that made music history, the film nevertheless features terrific music, some gripping performances, and a look and feel for the period that earns it tons of good will despite its lapses.
Hearing his voice and guitar playing on a makeshift recording done by documentarians putting down for the archives folk music of the rural South, sharecropper Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright) decides to make music his full-time occupation. He makes his way to Chicago where he’s discovered by fledgling music producer Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody) who puts him under contract and then begins rounding up other blues musicians located there: Little Walter (Columbus Short), Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer), Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker), Chuck Berry (Mos Def), and eventually Etta James (Beyoncé Knowles). Combining hard work with the payola necessary at the time to get the music played, especially on white stations where it’s known as “race music,” Muddy and Leonard form a very strong bond despite clear evidence that Leonard is shortchanging the various acts from their deserved royalties, buying them a succession of Cadillacs instead.
Writer-director Darnell Martin has set a herculean task for herself: covering almost two decades with its changes in music and personalities while trying to tell almost a half dozen stories. Consequently, some of the star names of the period get only cursory treatment (Howlin‘ Wolf and Chuck Berry get slighted the most), and the film often turns into merely a greatest blues and R&B hits medley instead of offering in-depth treatment of some of the fascinating lives at play. Beyoncé’s Etta James doesn’t even appear until an hour of the film has passed, and between her discovery, her rise as a crossover artist, and her descent into heroin addiction, the film seems to be able to touch only a few highlights with her and the others before moving on. On the other hand, the bracing music scores time and again for the movie, the familiar but not overly recycled tunes continually keeping the film grounded in what it does best: introducing new generations to the origins of rock and roll that are contained in these bluesy motifs. In fact, the film’s best sequence uses the song “My Babe” as the backdrop for a success montage making a later sequence of Elvis Presley’s usurpation of the song in the late 1950s something of a huge, head-turning surprise.
Jeffrey Wright’s bravura turn as the era’s first true blues artist Muddy Waters is exemplary, his gravelly singing a true reflection of the man’s singed soul. Adrien Brody gets what he can out of the oily Leonard Chess though the role on paper could have stood perhaps another couple of rewrites to zero in the man’s seeming complexities. Cedric the Entertainer serves as the film’s narrator, but his actual role in the proceedings as songwriter Willie Dixon is rather marginal. Doing much with little are both Columbus Short as the alcoholic Little Walter and Eamonn Walker as the snarling livewire Howlin’ Wolf, both characters deserving of much fuller explorations into their psyches. Beyoncé Knowles gives her all to Etta James, and her stirring “At Last” is one of the film’s highlights, but again the writing lets her down as she must enact such a fragmented character as if the through line were actually there. Mos Def’s Chuck Berry suggests the man without revealing much beneath his showy surface.
The film’s 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio is presented in 1080p using the AVC codec. The color palette for much of the film is rather subdued so colors almost never pop, not a fault of the transfer, of course, but lending the visual quality a frequently washed out appearance. A slightly heightened contrast level might have given the transfer more pizzazz, but there are no quibbles with sharpness levels. Fine object detail is good without being great, but black levels are just fine, and there is no evidence of edge enhancement or any other digital artifacts. The film is divided into 16 chapters.
For a film that centers so much of its running time on music, the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio track is a bit underwhelming. Instruments and some ambient effects get channeled to the surrounds as expected while dialog remains rooted to the center channel, but the soundstage seems narrower than expected. In all, it’s not bad, but it’s not a reference audio mix.
Director-writer Darnell Martin contributes a very laidback audio commentary. She fills in the gaps in the storytelling with information missing from the screenplay about the various characters, and she also separates the truth in the film from characters and actions that have been changed for dramatic effect. She’s not a compelling speaker, but her comments do add color to her somewhat lacking screenplay.
“Playing Chess: The Making of Cadillac Records” is a 26-minute EPK featuring the writer-director Darnell Martin, producer Sofia Sondervan, and stars Adrien Brody, Beyoncé Knowles, Jeffrey Wright, Columbus Short, and Mos Def praising one another’s contributions to the film. Fluffy in the extreme, it’s presented in 1080p.
“Once Upon a Blues: Cadillac Records by Design” allows costume designer Johnetta Boone and production designer Linda Burton talk about their work on the project, explaining their choices of tones and textures for the movie in a 15 ½-minute featurette. It’s also in 1080p.
There are five deleted scenes which may be watched in one 5-minute grouping or individually. They’re presented in 480i.
The Chess Record Player is a Blu-ray exclusive feature, an interactive feature which allows the viewer to mark (using the colored buttons on the remote) favorite songs in the film and then e-mail the completed songlist to friends for sharing.
The disc is BD-Live which at the time of the review process was displaying a succession of Sony trailers for downloading.
A succession of 1080p trailers on the disc include Seven Pounds, The Passenger, Rachel Getting Married, The Da Vinci Code, Across the Universe, Lakeview Terrace, and Rent: Live on Broadway.
While its narrative may be spotty and a bit unsatisfying, the music in Cadillac Records is positively cathartic, easily the best reason for renting or purchasing the Blu-ray disc.