(TriStar) Adrien Brody, Jeffrey Wright, Beyonce Knowles, Gabrielle Union, Cedric the Entertainer, Columbus Short, Emmanuelle Chriqui. Directed by Darnell Martin
Once in a great while, fortune and talent come together in a great confluence that allows the most unlikely of people to join together to become legends.
Leonard Chess (Brody), a Polish émigré to Chicago, has grand ambitions. Hoping to marry the love of his life Revetta (Chriqui), he opens a bar on the predominantly African-American South Side of Chicago. Hoping to draw in the local crowd, he hires local talent to play his stage. One of the first guys he finds is a gifted guitarist who goes by the name of Muddy Waters (Wright).
Muddy had been a Mississippi sharecropper before being “discovered” by Smithsonian-Folkways recording archivists, and being prompted to move to Chicago to play the Blues. His wife Geneva (Union) puts up with the rough living conditions and the late nights, turning a blind eye to his many infidelities.
So impressive is Muddy’s prowess that Chess buys a recording studio and founds a recording company he names after himself. However, Muddy’s career really goes into overdrive when he finds gifted harmonica player Little Walter (Short). Walter has a unique style that employs electric amplification, something only just coming into style back then. However, his abrasive personality and drinking problem leads him to be fired from Muddy’s band, although they still record together. Walter’s solo career, however, takes off on its own.
With songwriter/engineer Willie Dixon (Cedric) in the house, Chess has assembled a winning team which only gets better with the arrival of Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker) and the great Chuck Berry (Mos Def). Berry’s unique blend of blues, country and r&b creates a bastard child that can only be labeled “rock and roll.” His music begins to cross over lines to white audiences and becomes Chess Records’ most successful artist.
Add into this mix the incredibly talented (and incredibly troubled) Etta James (Knowles) and you have a recipe for game-changing music, as well as for ego-driven conflicts. As the ‘60s dawn and musical tastes begin to change, the influence of the Chess artists becomes apparent even as their record sales begin to dwindle. Not everybody, sadly, will make it out alive.
Martin has a cinematic love letter to an era and to a record label in particular. Music underwent a profound change in the 1950s, and Chess and Sun Records were both at the forefront of that change – the birth of rock and roll out of country (Sun Records with Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins) and the blues (Chess Records). Only Motown Records in the ‘60s would have the same kind of effect on the musical landscape that these two labels did.
Leonard Chess actually co-founded the label with his brother Phillip, who for some odd reason is not even mentioned here. In any case, Brody gives a solid performance as the label head, who gave his artists Cadillacs when they completed their first record, but who may have played fast and loose with royalty payments.
Knowles, who has shown some real acting skills in Dreamgirls and Austin Powers: Goldmember, continues to impress with a powerful portrayal as Etta James. She captures the artists’ outer bravura as well as her inner fears and demons. Short, similarly, captures the larger-than-life aspects of an artist who burned brightly and was snuffed out all too soon.
It’s a shame that in a movie about Chess Records, little of the original music from these artists was used. Instead, the producers chose to have the songs re-recorded (Knowles does her own vocals on James’ hits ”At Last” and “I’d Rather Be Blind”), mostly by the actors playing the artists. While it’s admirable that the actors did their own singing, I’d rather have heard the original versions by Muddy Waters, Etta James and Chuck Berry.
The filmmakers obviously have a reverence for Chess Records and its legacy. They gathered a strong cast and gave them some strong material to work with. This is a movie that helps illustrate the development of modern music, which is of more than passing interest to anyone who loves it. While the movie didn’t fare particularly well on its theatrical run, it is more than worth checking out. Yes, it’s an imperfect glimpse into the past but ultimately, a satisfying tribute to a label and the people on it who, together, changed music forever.
WHY RENT THIS: The story of Chess Records is an important historical event in the history of modern music and the movie covers it respectfully. Solid performances from an impressive cast, especially Knowles and Short.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie plays a little fast and loose with the facts, and oddly, doesn’t use the music from the actual performers and instead recreates these iconic songs with the actors lending their voices.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots of sex and sexual situations, as well as drug use and some racially-motivated violence. Not for small fries.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The part of Leonard Chess was originally to have been played by Matt Dillon, but he had to bow up due to scheduling conflicts. Adrien Brody wound up taking the part.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray includes an interactive playlist maker that allows you to create and share playlists of the songs in the movie.
FINAL RATING: 7/10