In the 1950s and '60s, American Jews and blacks had two glorious, complex and sometimes-fractious partnerships: civil rights and recording rights. Writer-director Darnell Martin goes for the throat of this killer subject in the scintillating Cadillac Records. Adrien Brody plays Leonard Chess, the Jewish founder of Chess Records who made the Cadillac his label's car of choice. In the 1950s, he put Muddy Waters and then Chuck Berry on the nation's turntables, and paid Alan Freed and other DJs to put them on the air.
Thus did Chess, Waters, Berry and Freed invent rock 'n' roll.
Unapologetic in his pursuit of the popular-art division of the American Dream, in all its materialistic splendor, Chess awarded himself and his artists, including the brilliant harpist or harmonica player Little Walter (Columbus Short) and the desperately bluesy and haunting Etta James (Beyonce Knowles), with brand-new Caddies to mark each landmark success.
Banning sermons or bogus good taste from her juicy anecdotal history, Martin (whose first film was the engaging I Like It Like That) conveys both the erotic sizzle of hot new music riding up the charts and the overall sensory excitement of minorities making it in America.
She paints on a large canvas and doesn't fill every spot. But her film has more vitality and perceptions than many a more-perfect movie. Time magazine has already scolded her for putting the foibles of its characters upfront. Actually, the film's matter-of-fact portrait of Chess Records as a blend of function and dysfunction may be its biggest strength.
In a couple of remarkably subtle yet full-bodied performances, Brody's Chess and Jeffrey Wright's Muddy Waters evoke a creative partnership and friendship that mixes brotherhood with mutual exploitation.
Chess assumes a fatherly power. He says he'll take care of his employees - and unlike later faux-moguls, in most cases, he does. C adillac Records depicts how that attitude can turn into abrasive paternalism, but it also shows how it enables Chess to treat Waters as his No. 1 star after Chuck Berry starts selling more records.
Filmmaker Martin has the smarts to see that developing a voracious ego is part of what makes pop volcanoes possible. Wright's Waters celebrates himself as a hot-blooded man with a savvy conviction and exuberance that make him seem 100 percent authentic. He radiates a genuine earthy appeal even when Willie Dixon (the always welcome Cedric the Entertainer) writes songs for him in the Muddy Waters manner. You consider Wright's Waters the last word in sexual and professional confidence - until Eamonn Walker makes his entrance and is so scary-good as Howlin' Wolf that for minutes at a time he wipes the other great players off the screen.
In Martin's view, Howlin' Wolf embodies a step forward in black manliness that rejects any dependency on a boss like Chess - and Walker puts that interpretation over with a ferocity that must be called black-comic. Other sources say that Wolf's antipathy to Waters (who brought Wolf to Chess) was more a matter of psychotic competition than identity politics.
In either case, Martin's approach opens up questions that reverberate through the entire cast of characters. In Cadillac Records, Waters as well as Chess must take responsibility for not being their brother's keeper - the brother in question being that sometime hit-maker and nonpareil harmonicat Little Walter. They're part of the problem, not the cure, when impulsiveness, substance abuse and gambling take their toll on Little Walter. (He is sadly in love with Waters' main squeeze, a self-sacrificing nurse played by the hard-to-resist Gabrielle Union.)
Walter collapses as an individual after Chess demotes him from star to side-player - and Waters does nothing to protect his pal's position. But true to the rest of the film, Short is never merely pathetic even when he's pitiable. He splutters like nobody else even when he goes down in flames.
Of course, Leonard Chess also has an ego - and Brody offers an outstanding demonstration of how a real "record man" turns ego into professional pride. His Leonard Chess may not be a musical innovator. But once his musicians persuade him to back their innovations, he won't be swerved from capturing them on record. He takes pride in his marriage, too, and holds it inviolate. Then Etta James draws forth every ounce of his protective drive, and in the process, touches his heart. Earning the respect she started to win with Dreamgirls, Knowles comes into her own as an actress playing James as an impossibly needy, extravagantly gifted, nearly always over-the-edge artist.
Audiences may wish filmmaker Martin had done more to fill in Chess' relationships with James and with his elegant wife and his partner-brother Phil. And there are other disappointments. Mos Def can be deliriously entertaining as a cagey, self-aware Chuck Berry, but perhaps because of clumsy staging and editing, he can't seem to make his feet move with the same rhythm as his shoulders, not even for Berry's famous duck walk.
Yet Cadillac Records still has buoyancy to spare. It's filled with bumps and scratches. But in the manner of a nicked old LP, its gnarly surface and warps-and-all sound evokes real life.
(TriStar Pictures) Starring Adrien Brody, Beyonce Knowles, Jeffrey Wright, Mos Def. Directed by Darnell Martin. Rated R for language and sexuality. Time 109 minutes.
Online Watch a preview and see more photos from Cadillac Records at baltimoresun.com/movies