Cadillac Records is loosely based upon the story of Chicago’s Chess Records. The movie gets its name from the fact that the record company used to buy its top artists Cadillacs. Chess was one of America’s leading Blues, Jazz and Soul labels from the 1950s-70s. It was founded by two Jewish immigrants from Poland Leonard and Phil Chess. The movie only includes Leonard Chess played by Adrien Brody. The movie focuses upon how Chess promoted its artists Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), Little Walter (Columbus Short), Etta James (Beyonce), Chuck Berry (Mos Def), and Howlin Wolf (Eamon Walker). Like other labels of that time Chess ran into financial problems and cheated many of its artists. That’s all here in Cadillac Records.
The movie starts with Muddy Waters. One reason why Chess was so successful was because Chicago was the destination for many African Americans who wanted out of the south. Muddy was one of those migrants who left a plantation in Mississippi and headed north for the big city. Chess found plenty of talent like Waters out of that diaspora. Finally, Chess had to put its artists out on tour and get them on the radio that required bribes. Chess also placed the artists basically in debt. They paid them in advance against their future royalties, charged them for recording, etc. This was all part of the music business back then. This is what’s so good about Cadillac Records. It has the artists. It has the music. It has the business. It has their stories. It captures part of American history, although yes, a lot of it is made up but the larger story is true.