Etta James blasts her way through a sad song, but it's not good enough. Leonard Chess taunts her and claims she's not "woman enough" for such a song. Didn't anyone ever walk out on her and leave her heartbroken? Take that and put it in the song, he suggests. She steps up for another take, and -- although she has tears in her eyes now -- it sounds pretty much the same. The main trouble with Cadillac Records is that no one took aside writer/director Darnell Martin with the same advice. Scene after scene, Cadillac Records is thin, flat and rote. Like all biopics, the new film skims over years and years of history in a brief fling. All the moments are historical; they describe what happened, but not who they happened to. Sometime in the 1940s -- the movie is rarely very clear as to what year it is -- Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody) runs a junkyard and decides to get into "race music." He moves from a club to a record label and signs Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), a blues guitarist straight off the plantation.
There are a few nice, early scenes showing these two men touring together, sharing meals and getting the stink-eye from local rednecks, but the movie shies away from developing this friendship. Muddy brings aboard the volatile harmonica player Little Walter (Columbus Short) and eventually gives him his first taste of liquor, which leads to a full-blown bout of alcoholism (this rock biopic cliché was ridiculed and should have been buried forever in last year's spoof Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story). Chess then signs the giant, monster-like Howlin' Wolf (Eamonn Walker), and Muddy takes an instant dislike to him. Once again, this rivalry is never fleshed out.
(I would like to have seen an entire movie about this Wolf; he's mesmerizing and positively terrifying!) Then comes Etta James (Beyoncé Knowles), and though Chess has apparently remained faithful to his wife, he clearly nurses something more than a crush on Etta. Etta remains hard and standoffish, most of the time, though Chess claims he can "see her." Good thing he can, because we can't.
Moreover, the poor wife (Emmanuelle Chriqui) barely registers a blip; in one scene she looks worriedly at a magazine with Etta on the cover; what's she thinking? Does she know what's going on? Poor Gabrielle Union fares only slightly better as Muddy's long-suffering significant other. She at least has an interesting scene in which she explains how she doesn't have any dreams because "someone has to keep their feet planted on the ground."