Chicago-based Chess Records, which was founded in 1950 by Polish entrepreneur Leonard Chess and made stars of Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Etta James, Little Walter, Willie Dixon and Howlin’ Wolf (among others), is a true-life saga brimming with dramatic material. Too much material, in fact, for writer-director Darnell Martin to properly handle, as evidenced by Cadillac Records, an attempt at providing a comprehensive portrait of the label and its artists that, due to time and space constraints, turns its every element facile. Despite basically eliminating Leonard’s brother and business partner Phil Chess from the story, Martin’s script is so bursting at the seams with outsized personalities and racial issues that it depicts each of them with hasty brushstrokes, an unfortunate development not only because her iconic subjects deserve better—heck, if biopics weren’t by and large worthlessly reductive affairs, Waters, Berry and James would each warrant their own—but because Jeffrey Wright infuses his performance as legendary bluesman Waters with acute, conflicted soul.
The film revolves around Chess and Waters’s tight, often tense relationship, which was underlined by Waters’s suspicion that Chess was cheating him out of riches. Martin’s visually and narratively flat film makes modest pains to address this racial/economic dynamic, in which black musicians’ art was exploited—and then, upon the later arrival of the Rolling Stones and Elvis, downright appropriated—by whites for profit. Yet the director’s surplus of characters prevents any serious consideration of the pressing socio-economic forces at play, with time instead allotted to Chess’s loyalty to his wife (Emmanuelle Chriqui), Little Walter’s (Columbus Short) descent into booze, the toll Waters’s philandering had on spouse Geneva (Gabrielle Union)—who, barren herself, even chose to care for one of his illegitimate children, a ripe storyline that’s introduced and then immediately forgotten—and Chess’s burgeoning feelings for James (Beyoncé Knowles). Throw in a collection of musical numbers, including at least one too many from Beyoncé, and the result is a film that resembles not the raw and immediate blues, R&B and rock n’ roll singles that made Chess a pioneer, but the bloated, unfocused full-length albums that would later become the industry’s stock and trade.