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.