"Cadillac Records" captures a significant part of American musical history, when the blues traveled from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago. As they arrived up north, the performers plugged in and transformed the blues from acoustic to electric style.
Instrumental to the new sound was Chess Records, founded by two Polish Jewish immigrants, Leonard and Phil Chess (strangely, Phil is missing from the film). Adrian Brody plays a determined Leonard Chess, who starts out with a South Side nightclub and eventually realizes that his acts don't have a record label. Eventually he opens up a studio and records Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, Etta James, Chuck Berry and a host of other blues and early rock masters. He does all he can to publicize his artists, grouped in the early 1950s under the category "race music," including bribing disc jockey Alan Freed, who was eventually blackballed because of the payola scandals.
Jeffrey Wright's Muddy Waters and Eammon Walker's Howlin' Wolf are natural rivals in terms of both music and women, and they form an interesting character contrast. When Chess gives Waters a Cadillac, the latter gleefully calls him his "white daddy." Wolf, on the other hand, prefers the battered truck that he paid for and makes it clear that all musical decisions regarding his band's recording sessions are to go through him.
Playing Etta James, Beyonce Knowles sings outstanding renditions of "At Last" and "I'd Rather Go Blind," all the while battling heroin addiction. Also struggling with substance abuse was influential harmonica player Little Walter, shown in all his volatility by Columbus Short.
By the time Chuck Berry makes his way to the studios, Chess recognizes that, as the Muddy Waters song goes, "The blues had a baby and they called it rock 'n' roll." Mos Def's Chuck Berry is an exuberant performer, but he's also resentful of white artists such as Elvis Presley and The Beach Boys (as in "Surfin' USA") whom he sees as ripping off his musical style while earning more.
The artists gain their true recognition and a surge in their careers during the 1960s from English performers like the Rolling Stones, who acknowledge the influence of the American blues masters. "Cadillac Records" brings their accomplishments to light as well, as it pays fitting tribute to those who were at the forefront of a new electric sound in Chicago.