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'Cadillac Records' plays song you've heard before

"Cadillac Records" (R)

2 stars out of 4

Darnell Martin could have made an entire movie about Muddy Waters. Or Etta James. Or Chuck Berry.

Instead, the writer-director has made a movie about all of them with 'Cadillac Records,' cramming their complicated individual stories into the larger saga of Chicago-based Chess Records, the label that launched those stars and so many others during the 1950s and '60s.

The result feels even more cursory and rushed than the average music biopic, a genre that's already difficult to depict without lapsing into self-parody. (Jake Kasdan, Judd Apatow and Co. had long known that when they made 'Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.')

It's all here, over and over, just as you've seen it countless times before: the early struggle, the rise to the top (accompanied by the obligatory montage of press clippings and positions on the Billboard chart), the waste of fame and talent with various controlled substances. Certainly there must be a better, fresher way to tell this familiar tale.

Despite the glimmers of potential for typically strong work from Jeffrey Wright as Waters, Mos Def as Berry and Adrien Brody as the label's founder, Polish emigre Leonard Chess, Martin too often gives them too little of substance with which to work. She also shows us the racism of the time - which Chess earnestly, persistently tries to break through by bringing blues and R&B to a mass audience - with facile platitudes and hand-holding voiceover provided by Cedric the Entertainer.

As songwriter Willie Dixon, Cedric tells us things that are already obvious, things we're already seeing for ourselves: that these performers were hooked on music, women and cars (namely Cadillacs, hence the title), on the flashy lifestyle talent and stardom afforded them.

Columbus Short gets some amusing moments as volatile harmonica player Little Walter, but Gabrielle Union gets too little to do as Waters' initially supportive but ultimately put-upon wife (yet another cliche in this type of movie, for those of you keeping score at home).

And Beyonce Knowles doesn't seem to have splurged on acting lessons since her wooden turn in 'Dreamgirls.' From the second she enters the film as the tempestuous James, you want to see her sing 'At Last,' then get out. No amount of wigs and padding can transform her.

The music itself is the most reliable star of all; Knowles does knock it out of the park a couple times, particularly on James' signature song, and Mos Def is insanely charismatic as Berry, though he doesn't appear in the film nearly as much as the ads would lead you to believe and when he's gone you want him to come back.

In fact, the music is often so good, with classics including Waters' 'Hoochie Coochie Man' and Berry's 'No Particular Place to Go,' that 'Cadillac Records' makes you long for a documentary on the subject instead. That probably wasn't the intended effect.

'Cadillac Records,' a Sony Music Film release, is rated R for pervasive language and some sexuality. Running time: 107 minutes.