Originally Published: December 4, 2008, on Collider.com and 1050ESPN.com (now ESPNNewYork.com)

Cadillac Records chronicles the rise of Chess Records and its recording artists. It’s a feverish tale of race, sex, violence, and rock ‘n’ roll in Chicago of the 1950s and 60s as it follows the exciting, but turbulent, lives of some of America’s great musical legends.

The story centers around how the blues became popular and would pave the way for what would be rock ‘n’ roll and opens up on Chicago of 1947 where an ambitious young Polish immigrant bar owner, Leonard Chess (Academy Award Winner, Adrian Brody), hires a talented, but undisciplined, blues combo led by guitarist Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright) and harmonica player Little Walter (Columbus Short).

Chess arranges a recording session for Waters and when his early recordings start rocketing up the R and B charts, Chess Records is born.
As time goes on, Chess treats his musicians like family, buying each one a brand new Cadillac when they record their first hit (hence the name of the movie), but the line between professional and personal matters becomes blurred on many an occasion.

Finally, in 1955, one of Chess’s artists crosses over into mainstream America, a skinny guy from St. Louis with a funny “duck walk” named Chuck Berry (Mos Def). Berry’s catchy, country-tinged tunes mark the birth of rock ‘n’ roll. When Berry is arrested at the height of his career, however, Chess has to find someone else to bridge the cross over gap.

Enter Etta James (Beyonce Knowles), an emotionally scarred young woman whose vulnerability tempts Chess’s loyalty and concern in unexpected ways.

As rock ‘n’ roll grows more popular, the Chess artists find that booze, women, and the high life have taken their toll and as tragedy looms, Leonard Chess leaves the music business finally in the late 60s. The blues and rock ‘n’ roll would live on though, having forever changed the landscape of American music.

Now that you know what you’ll be getting yourself into for 1 hour and 48 minutes, let me tell you why you should see this movie.

This story accurately chronicles the roots of one of the strongest aspects of our culture: the music. It tells a story that has needed telling for a long time, since most people do not know the details about the origin of our modern music and the suffering that many people went through to refine some of these great sounds.

This movie gives you the highs and the lows that you would expect from any good drama and they’re woven beautifully in-between some classic songs that will have your foot tapping in the theatre.

Along with great music, you get great acting from this movie. Nearly all songs played in the movie were played by the actors themselves, there was no lip synching going on here. And since most characters were forced onto an emotional roller coaster, you really got to see the range of many of these actors.

“It was daunting. You wanted to have the fresh, green Walter to going to where he went really dark. That’s why it was a challenge, but that’s why I wanted to do it. It was going to challenge me and Hollywood’s perception of me,” said Columbus Short at the NYC premiere when asked why he took the role considering the range of Walter’s life he was portraying in the film.

The struggles for many of these artists was not just making a living through music, but also trying to be accepted in the segregated America of the 1950s and 60s and the trials that came with that. Not only trying to find acceptance within their own communities, but with white America was a struggle on many different levels.

“When you see him singing, you see him alive and well and the performance side is who these man really are, but you have to survive and you’re surviving segregation and heavy racism and it was a poor time. The blues is what helped them get through it. If they weren’t singing, they’d be in the fields picking cotton in the hot baking sun. That was their everyday life. And that’s what this film does on multiple layers. It gives you the music, the time, the good feeling you get from that music because sometimes they would be drinking and it would come out as happy music and sometimes it would be deeply painful and you would hear the pain in it. This music influenced Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Who, and in the end these men have to come back and pay homage and half the riffs you hear in this film, you do a double take and go ‘oh my god, that is where that came from?’ and some of them didn’t even try to hide it when they took it, they just took it,” commented Eamonn Walker, who plays Howlin’ Wolf in the film, on the struggles the Chess Records artists went through.

There was a lot of stir around this movie as well not only for the touchy subject matter this movie deals with, but also because Hollywood loves making a stink whenever someone gains or loses weight for a role. Beyonce had to put on 20 pounds to play the legendary Etta James and I promise you she still looks amazing in the movie and, of course, she had no problem pulling off the singing. The real question would come with having to play such a troubled character on screen. I can tell you, she made it seem like it was second nature.

“I had to think about things that really meant something to me. I had to think of things that were painful and emotional and it was difficult because I would go home with swollen eyes and a big attitude every night, but it definitely paid off,” said Beyonce about her inspiration.

The only problem with this movie I had was that there were so many different characters that I felt you never followed one long enough to really develop the relationship you need to have as a viewer to care about the characters. Most of these people wore their hearts on their sleeves, but you never really see where they get the shirt from.

Now, in the movie’s defense, to chronicle the 20 year history of one of the most influential music companies in history, you would expect to see a lot of different characters and shifting personalities. To remedy the lack of being able to develop the characters then, they should have stressed the greatest character of all, the company itself. To have some of the most influential musicians of the 20th century all congregate at one point or another under this one roof is remarkable and not nearly emphasized enough in this movie for my liking and because there never is a single character fleshed out to the point that you feel strongly for them, the movie leaves a little something more to be desired when all is said and done.

However, when the credits are rolling, this is a solid movie. It portrays everyone involved with the dignity and class they deserve while still remaining true to the story that was Chess Records and the birth of rock ‘n’ roll during one of the ugliest times in American history. Everyone involved gives amazing performances and the music makes you want to run out and buy the soundtrack immediately. Anyone who has heard any rock ‘n’ roll from the past 40 years should see this movie, especially if they do not know where it all started. Look for Cadillac Records in theatres nationwide on Friday, December 5th. Cadillac Records gets: 4 out of 5.

-Ray Carsillo