by Faith Childs

Cadillac Records, Darnell Martin’s new film, is a retelling of the Chess Records saga. The film chronicles the rise of McKinley Morganfield, aka Muddy Waters, whose journey from Mississippi sharecropper to Chicago blues legend forms the spine of the film.

The blues — race music, as it was then known,  performed largely by black musicians and  often played on segregated stations — gave rise to rock and roll, a largely white phenomenon derived from the earlier form (some would say stolen). The film, like John Sayles’s 2007 Honeydripper,  makes explicit the debt rock and roll owes the blues. Indeed the closing credits indicate some successful actions brought by blues musicians against those who used their music without acknowledgment or compensation.

Martin, 42, who up until now has mostly worked in television (Life on Mars, ER, the L Word), has lessons to learn about her craft. The film is a bit disjointed at times. But the music here is still a reminder of the rich legacy of the blues —an American language whose currency influenced the world and its music.

Jeffrey Wright, who has been Colin Powell, Jean Michel Basquiat, and Martin Luther King, delivers a stunningly felt performance as Muddy Waters which is both profound and yet gestural. Wright’s designation as Living National Treasure should be announced any day. Adrien Brody is Leonard Chess. whose company both extols and exploits many recording artists. To the director’s credit, Chess is a complicated character who plays fast and loose with artists’ earnings yet buys them houses and Cadillacs, and nourishes a passion for Etta James, here played by Beyoncé. Columbus Short is Little Walter. and Mos’ Def’s Chuck Berry comes close to stealing the show. For every Muddy Waters, there are scores of lesser known or obliterated figures, whose talent or demons eclipsed their careers. Cadillac Records is worth viewing. And the music will make you want to get up in the aisles and dance.

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