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Cadillac Records (2008) Print E-mail
Thursday, 12 March 2009
ImageUnless you're a student of music, you may not realize rock-'n'-roll grew out of the blues, and the African-Americans who developed this new, infectious sound had to wait years and rewrite history to receive the credit they deserved.  Cadillac Records salutes these unsung pioneers, and paints a searing portrait of the turbulent time in which they lived.

Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody) loves the blues – so much so, he's willing to cross Chicago's color lines to promote some talented, struggling African-American artists who one day would achieve legendary status within the music industry.  He's also desperate for success and willing to do almost anything to achieve it.  To Leonard, a poor Polish immigrant's son, a spanking new Cadillac represents the fulfillment of the American dream, and he's determined to get one for himself and everyone he manages.  After a stint as a club owner, Leonard founds Chess Records, and puts such gifted musicians on the map as Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), Little Walter (Columbus Short), Willie Dixon, (Cedric the Entertainer), Chuck Berry (Mos Def), and the soulful Etta James (Beyoncé Knowles) during a time of tense social strife. Chess and his roster of stars, however, pay a hefty price for success. Alcohol, drugs, infidelity, and other demons debilitate them, but music is always their salvation, and when everything else fails, they turn to the blues for solace and nourishment.

Cadillac Records contains plenty of soaring musical numbers, but it's also a gritty examination of America's racial divide during the '40s, '50s, and '60s, and how the blues and rock-'n'-roll at first divide, then unite blacks and whites. The period detail, top-flight music sequences, and excellent portrayals all contribute to the movie's success, but writer-director Darnell Martin stumbles a bit by adopting the blues' lazy, languid pacing. The actors give it their all, but a strong directorial hand is still needed to fully propel the film, and Martin, who cut her teeth largely in TV, can't quite rev the film's engine to the degree necessary to keep us fully involved.

The first-rate performances, though, help keep the film from stalling too often. Wright leads the way with a spot-on take on Muddy Waters, Short impresses as Little Walter, and Mos Def mixes charisma, mischief, and unbridled energy to bring Chuck Berry to brilliant life. But Beyoncé steals the show with a performance of such raw intensity we almost forget her pop star pedigree.  Her renditions of At Last and I'd Rather Go Blind cut deep, but she takes it all to another level during a riveting scene when she's totally strung out on heroin.  This is a Beyoncé we haven't seen before, but now that she's out of the bag, hopefully we will again.

Sony's 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC transfer beautifully replicates the look and feel of this film. Colors are largely muted, but do pop on occasion, while strong, dense black levels and excellent contrast lend the image a nice vibrancy.  Faint grain adds a touch of period texture, but the print remains free of dirt, and the transfer handles various source materials, such as newsreels and archival clips, without any jarring transitions. Shadow delineation is fine in all light levels, and fleshtones, which run the gamut, are perfectly pitched. The clear close-ups lack the 3-D elements of the best 1080p renderings, but overall, this is a solid, good-looking transfer from Sony.

The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track is by no means weak, but it doesn't do the music justice. The vocals don't wrap around like they should, and the guitar and harmonica solos of Muddy Waters and Little Walter fail to provoke the kind of visceral response you'd get from a higher quality track.  Limited surround action and muted bass frequencies don't help, though some decent front channel separation does a good job of expanding the sound field.  The dialogue could be clear if the actors chose to enunciate, yet the speech patterns and dialects are often impossible to understand. With so much drawling and mumbling, I seriously considered turning on the subtitles to follow the conversations.  To really stir our emotions, 'Cadillac Records' requires a reference quality mix, and this standard effort doesn't get the job done.

Supplements include a high-quality audio commentary by Martin, two well-produced featurettes on the film itself and its costume and production design, a few brief deleted scenes, and some trailers.  As a Blu-ray exclusive, there's an interactive playlist, which allows viewers to mark their favorite songs with the remote, then share the "playlist" with friends and family via BD-Live.

Cadillac Records tells a vital story and, generally, tells it with insight and grace, though it never grabbed me like I hoped it would.  Maybe if the video and audio transfers were reference quality, I might be more enthusiastic about this disc. Still, it's definitely worth a look, especially for hardcore music fans.

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