Cadillac Records is Hollywood's version of the Chess Records story. Founded by Leonard Chess (played by Adrian Brody), it became the signature home of the Chicago blues, rhythm & blues, and early rock & roll. Its artist roster included Etta James, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Howlin' Wolf, Buddy Guy, Willie Dixon, and dozens of others. The official soundtrack features re-recordings of songs from Chess' classic catalog by contemporary artists -- who have prime roles in the film -- as well as new songs by current talent, and one original stalwart, thank goodness. As such, this set is a mixed bag, and one of two packages that features music from the film.
The album's first single is Beyoncé Knowles' (playing Etta James' cover of the latter vocalist's classic "At Last"). It's one of her three selections here, and on it Knowles possesses little of the legendary singer's power or edgy finesse. She's entirely too polished and restrained. Her phrasing doesn't come close in terms of inventiveness or inspiration, and her emotional conviction is lacking, to say the least. She fares far better on "I'd Rather Go Blind," that's closer to vintage Northern soul. She gets in a bit of the grit and looseness that the melody and lyric suggest. That said, her lone original "Once in a Lifetime," produced by Amanda Ghost, the Rural, and Ian Dench, could have come from either of her own solo records. It sounds insipid in this context. Jeffrey Wright plays Waters in this film, and his readings of "I'm a Man" and "(I'm Your) Hoochie Coochie Man" are excellent. Waters may have been the hardest of the originals to pull off. And Wright comes the closest vocally. He has the requisite vocal depth and can reach for that combination of otherworldliness, abandon, and slight menace that Waters possessed in abundance. He comes closer than hundreds of others who've attempted it over the past 50 years. Likewise, Columbus Short's reading of Dixon's "My Babe" is another highlight. Mos Def as Berry isn't nearly so successful. Berry's voice is one of the most recognizable in recorded history, and the rapper turned actor and -- now "blues" singer? -- doesn't have the authority, hedonistic rebellion, or sexual swagger in his vocal grain as Berry does. He can't seem to raise himself to the disciplined level of phrasing or storytelling, either. While the vocalists don't cut it, the backing bands mostly do, peopled with blues legend Hubert Sumlin, ex-Fabulous Thunbderbirds frontman Kim Wilson, Danny Kortchmar, Steve Jordan, Eddie Taylor, Jr., and bassist Larry Taylor, to name a few.
What's really strange here is the inclusion of new neo-soul cuts by Raphael Saadiq and Solange, and Mary Mary, all of which feel forced, stylized and, to be honest, quite cynical in getting the maximum bang for the buck by the album's producers. They need to get this on the radio, and Knowles, no matter how popular, isn't going to make Etta James sound contemporary enough for the suits who program radio or run record labels. Also included as the last cut -- inexplicably -- is an already released track by Nas in "Bridging the Gap," a blues-hop track with his dad, Olu Dara. Original Chess bluesman Little Walter appears here on the track "Last Night" that somehow, with Wright's contributions, redeems most of this slab. This will likely appeal to those moviegoers who are fans of the above stars, particularly Knowles. As far as the story of Chess goes, this music does little to illuminate the magic of the period or Chess' brand of turbulent, fast, loose, genius.