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Originally published December 4, 2008 at 3:00 PM | Page modified December 4, 2008 at 4:04 PM

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Movie review

"Cadillac Records": Cast puts an entertaining spin on crowded tale of '50s label

Adrien Brody, Jeffrey Wright and Beyoncé Knowles star in "Cadillac Records," an often entertaining true-life tale of the music industry in the 1950s that is marred only by too many stories.

Seattle Times movie critic

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In "Cadillac Records," Adrien Brody, left, plays the founder of Chess Records, which signed Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright) and other legendary artists.

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ERIC LIEBOWITZ / AP

In "Cadillac Records," Adrien Brody, left, plays the founder of Chess Records, which signed Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright) and other legendary artists.

Movie review 2.5 stars

"Cadillac Records," with Adrien Brody, Jeffrey Wright, Gabrielle Union, Columbus Short, Cedric the Entertainer, Mos Def, Beyoncé Knowles. Written and directed by Darnell Martin. 108 minutes. Rated R for pervasive language and some sexuality. Several theaters.

If you've heard Etta James' "At Last" — and you probably have, in the background of a romantic movie or a restaurant — you've never forgotten it; it's a lush, soulful wail of love finally found, of lonely days finally over. There's pain in her young voice, and hard-won joy. In Darnell Martin's "Cadillac Records," Beyoncé Knowles plays Etta James, and she sings "At Last" very, very well, her lovely voice soaring on every note. But some indefinable ingredient is missing; the song is more pretty than wrenching.

That's the problem with "Cadillac Records," an often entertaining real-life saga of Chess Records, the 1950s Chicago record label that signed James, Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), Little Walter (Columbus Short), Chuck Berry (Mos Def) and other legendary blues/rock artists: The voices don't quite measure up to the real thing, and the story's too crowded to give them justice.

Martin, who both wrote and directed the film, has plenty of rich material here. The life story of any of these artists alone, as well as the label's founder Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody), would be enough to fill two hours. (James appears when the movie's half over and gets particularly short shrift.)

You can wonder at Martin's choice to duplicate the landmark music the film celebrates (all of the music, except for some bits of Elvis Presley hits and one Little Walter recording, was re-created), but you can't quarrel with his casting — a fine group of actors who keep the movie watchable and leave you wanting more. Wright, who's getting some well-earned recognition this fall (he's also in "W." as Colin Powell and "Quantum of Solace"), finds the low-key soul of the man everyone calls Mud, who transforms easily from street musician playing what other black people dismissively call "sharecropper music" to star. The ever-loose Brody, whose Chess strokes a female singer's behind with the same appreciation with which he caresses the Cadillacs he buys for his talent, makes a complex character likable.

Short finds something haunting in the troubled Little Walter (though at times Walter's mumble becomes unintelligible), and Def brings his trademark free-floating, irresistibly relaxed quality to Berry. And Knowles does her best screen acting to date here, slinking into the movie with a sidelong glance and a "Don't be lookin' at me like I ain't wearin' no drawers." Her Etta acts perpetually disinterested, to avoid disappointment; she even sings "At Last" while looking breezily around the room.

"Cadillac Records" tells an important piece of music history: the moment when "race music" stopped bearing that label and became music for all. But by cramming too many characters into the story, Martin goes us both too much and not enough. Any of these musicians deserves a "Walk the Line" or "Coal Miner's Daughter"-type biopic of their own; perhaps this flawed but enjoyable movie is the first step toward that.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725

or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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