“They was a family now,” observes Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer) of the artists who form the bluesy, Chicago-based Headhunters in 1947. That means, per movie conventions, they will fight and make up, nurture and betray, and succeed and fail as a unit that is never entirely convinced of their unity. It helps Cadillac Records that the primary figure in this early family configuration is Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), blessed as he is with charisma and an abiding self-confidence. This means, per those same conventions, that no matter how crowded the movie becomes with potential protagonists and storylines — and it does become very crowded — he provides an engaging interesting throughline, a figure whose fate seems to matter, if only by sheer force of will.
The universe for this mattering is broadly sketched. Muddy’s trek to Chicago from Mississippi is initiated here by an encounter with Alan Lomax (Tony Bentley). The 1941 moment looks iconic: Muddy plays his guitar and wails a bit, while chickens pick through dirt near his shack and Lomax leans into his recording machine, stowed in his car trunk, and smiles enthusiastically. When he plays it back, Muddy looks perplexed: “Feel like I’m meetin’ myself for the first time,” he mumbles. That meeting, over-explains narrator Dixon, leads Muddy to think his voice is “too big for that shack,” as Muddy walks off down literal roads and railroad tracks, winding his way to the big city (and not mentioning that he’d already been to St. Louis and returned to Mississippi).
Here his life is shaped as still more iconic moments: he recruits harmonica player Little Walter (Columbus Short) by challenging him to play with him on a street corner, he sings on a sidewalk to attract the attention of his wife to be, Geneva (Gabrielle Union), who leans out her apartment window to flirt (“You trouble, you know that?”) and invite him inside. Their meeting, like the one with Lomax, initiates another trajectory for Muddy: she stays home looking woeful in her apron while he’s on the road and sleeping with multiple women. None is especially visible, but as a concept, they provide a limited and mostly clichéd sense of Muddy’s experience as a musician and early crossover star for Chess Records. The structure is simple and too familiar, appendage-women illustrating focal-point men’s professional success and emotional vulnerabilities, and the rationale that this is the “way it was” in decades past is not reason enough to perpetuate the fictions (that is, the women have stories too, even if no one has told them).
Geneva, vibrant and practical-minded, serves here and elsewhere as motivation. When she suggests that Muddy is not marriageable material but also that his music “took me someplace so good,” he redoubles that effort to find a world big enough for his voice, beyond the shack, beyond the sidewalk, beyond Geneva’s generous heart. And so he enters into the relationship that will define his career and the film’s repetitive “family” structure, a contract with Chess Records, founded in 1950 by Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody). Understanding that race records make money for white people, Leonard gives Muddy a new Cadillac and takes him along on the road to radio stations, where he pays off DJs to get his artists heard.
The mixing of communities here (Leonard being Jewish and noting the attendant disadvantages) recalls director Darnell Martin’s first feature, I Like It Like That (1994), but the new movie mostly glosses over economic and political details. As Leonard dreams of a crossover record, he outfits his studio with top-notch equipment and engineers, then watches from the booth while music and melodrama unfold before him. The artists comment frequently on this discomforting set-up. Muddy and Walter call “daddy,” affectionately or resentfully, depending on the stage of their careers or their substance abuse (“You don’t own me!” being one instance of the latter). The broader context is not so clear as it might be — that the houses and cars and fine clothes the artists possess don’t translate into control over their careers or their work (see Ray for at least some mention of this industry-wide problem). As much as Leonard tries to share the wealth among his accumulating artists — he brings in Chuck Berry (Mos Def), Etta James (Beyoncé Knowles), and Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker) — by redistributing the income of whoever is hot among the company’s “family” members, the point is not lost on any of them that he’s the boss, that he decides who plays when and even how to play.
Howlin’ Wolf is visibly powerful and glowering, his competitive energies directed toward Muddy rather than Leonard, and Chuck Berry (engagingly played by Mos Def) is reduced to comic bits via his notorious liaisons with white women and his explosive industry crossing over (the obligatory close-ups of music charts appear frequently, to connote the hit records). But the film makes the most of its soapy filtering of race culture and politics in Etta, especially as her relationship with “daddy” becomes romantically fraught and sexually charged. Leonard’s first interference with her art is one of those very regular movie scenes: he forces her to sing with passion by evoking in her a sense of pain so deeply buried in her childhood that she’s crying as she performs in the studio. More ridiculously, when he predictably apologizes to her for the push (while rationalizing it was best for her career), he does so in a pool hall, where she talks about the man she’s been told is her father, Minnesota Fats, a bit of legend the film treats as possible fact but most likely delusion — leaving her tearful again but now with added trauma: another white daddy who rejects her.
Etta’s story is obviously too complicated for a movie about her record label to tell, and she also ends up diminished into background. Specifically, she and her heroin addiction occasion a showdown of sorts between Leonard and Muddy, who complains out loud, at last, about his employer’s dallying with his hit-record-making “baby girl.” Leonard protests that he has honest feelings for her, a point confirmed, apparently, when he watches her perform one last song in the studio, a song about losing love that makes her cry again. As he walks out, literalizing her lyrics, he also tears up, his pose at the doorway intimating an exceedingly arranged kind of pain. While the film makes clear in scenes of physical and emotional violence that everyone’s pain is difficult as well as the source of their many variations of blues, this moment exemplifies its tendency to be distracted by conventions.