Amy


Amy Winehouse belts one out.

Amy Winehouse belts one out.

(2015) Musical Documentary (A24) Amy Winehouse, Yasiin Bey (Mos Def), Tony Bennett, Mitchell Winehouse, Blake Fielder-Civil, Juliette Ashby, Nick Shymansky, Lauren Gilbert, Salaam Remi, Sam Beste, Andrew Morris, Mark Ronson, Pete Doherty, Blake Wood, Janis Winehouse, Raye Cosbert, Guy Moot, Darcus Beese, Tyler James, Monte Lipman. Directed by Asif Kapadia

The music industry is a harsh, unforgiving world. It chews people up and spits them back out, rarely unscathed. Even those who reach the grail of commercial success don’t go untouched.

Amy Winehouse was a little girl with a big voice, singing with Britain’s National Youth Jazz Orchestra. We see her as a teen, singing happy birthday to and with her friends Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert. A Jewish girl from working class London, Amy’s parents divorced when she was quite young.

She began writing songs in which she exorcised her demons. Deeply personal, her music was all about what was going on in her life at that particular moment. She preferred to work in a jazz idiom but her music would eventually turn more pop and once her song “Rehab” hit it big, there would be no stopping her. Except that the Back to Black album that her hit came from would be the last album she’d ever record.

Her brash personality hid a very fragile girl who was surrounded both by people who looked out for her – her friends Ashby and Gilbert, as well as Nick Shymansky, her first manager – and people who didn’t have her best interests at heart.

In fact, some of those around her were actually like poison to her, in particular her husband Blake Fielder-Civil who she was head over heels over, but who led her down a path that included addiction to hard drugs and binge eating and drinking (Winehouse suffered from bulimia dating back to her teenage days). Fielder-Civil comes off absolutely horribly in the movie; after doing a stint in jail, he sees video of his wife with another man; he divorces her for infidelity, smugly proclaiming that he was handsome and young, what was he doing with a skank like that? Yes, by that time the effects of her addiction were starting to show. I guess I wanted to take that silly hat he likes to wear and shove it where the sun don’t shine only after smashing that smug expression in. What a pretentious, self-centered waste of human flesh.

Her own father doesn’t come off unscathed. He appears unconcerned about the issues his daughter has, advising her not to go to rehab before the fame set in and seemingly more concerned about his own limelight and the gravy train his daughter provided him. The Winehouse family initially cooperated with the filmmakers, providing plenty of home video footage as well as granting on-camera interviews for the project but eventually rescinded that cooperation when it became clear that the filmmakers were not portraying them in a flattering light. Mitchell Winehouse has gone on to say that the movie doesn’t capture Amy the person very well and dwells overly much on the lurid tabloid events and in that he does have a point.

Truth be told, I was never much a fan of her music; her voice is a bit too brassy for my taste, but that doesn’t mean I don’t recognize talent when I hear it. The woman had a true gift, understanding phrasing like few modern singers do. Tony Bennett, with whom she recorded a duet shortly before she died, compared her to Ella Fitzgerald and I would think that he would know a thing or two about it.

Watching her transformation from a vibrant, promising performer into pop superstardom and from there to drug-addled tabloid fodder is simply painful. We see her besieged by paparazzi, flashbulbs going off like mortar explosions around her, blinding the poor woman so that she couldn’t see where she was walking. The tabloid press are drawn to bad boys and girls like the bottom feeders they are, and how horrible must it be to know that they are out there 24/7, awaiting a chance to catch you at your worst – because the people who read that drivel want to believe the worst about you.

At the end of the day, Amy Winehouse had a hand in her own demise – it is absolutely chilling to hear her tell her friend Juliette that the celebration for her Grammy win was “boring without drugs.” At that point, even had you not known what her fate was to be (found dead on July 13, 2011 of alcohol poisoning) you would have known that she was not long for this world. Her voice stilled, her muse gone, one can’t help but wonder what she might have accomplished had she lived.

But then, that’s the nature of the muse. It doesn’t always treat those who are inspired by it kindly. Amy Winehouse was an amazing talent who became the poster child for excess and addiction by the time she reached her mid-20s. She went from the Next Big Thing to the butt of all sorts of jokes and the sad part was that those who should have been watching out for her were instead feeding the flames that were consuming her. This documentary is chilling in that regard but as a cautionary tale, it is one that we have seen many times on the price of success. And it’s a story that is likely to be told again someday with yet another prodigy; that’s the real tragedy.

REASONS TO GO: Heartbreaking. Wonderful archival footage for fans. Even non-fans will appreciate.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the footage of her descent into drug-addled junkie status is hard to watch. Spends more time on the more lurid tabloid aspects of her life than on her music.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of foul language, drug references and usage, and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Winehouse is a member of the “27 Club,” a group of rock stars who all died at the age of 27. Other members include Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/15/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Was Not Made For This World
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Certified Copy

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Begin Again


Can a song save your life?

Can a song save your life?

(2013) Romance (Weinstein) Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, Hailee Steinfeld, Adam Levine, Catherine Keener, Cee Lo Green, Mos Def, James Corden, Marco Assante, Rob Morrow, Jennifer Li, Ian Brodsky, Shannon Maree Walsh, Mary Catherine Garrison, David Abeles, Jimmy Palumbo, Colin Love, Ron Voz, David Pendleton, Jasmine Hope Bloch, Sheena Colette. Directed by John Carney

Music has great restorative properties; studies have concluded that certain tones can stimulate the brain to produce endorphins. There are some therapists who use music to help those with depression and other emotional and mental challenges. Music can heal people, even people in the music business.

In a Greenwich Village bar on an open mike night, Steve (Corden), an ex-pat Brit is playing guitar and singing his song. He invites a friend onstage, but Greta (Knightley) isn’t very willing to go. In fact, she’s downright reluctant but with the patrons urging her on she finally goes up onstage. Thirty seconds into her song, they lose interest and resume their conversations and ordering drinks.

That is, except for one guy – Danny (Ruffalo), a middle aged former record executive who that afternoon had been fired from the record label he had started with his partner Saul (Def). Danny had been sinking into an alcoholic morass ever since his wife Miriam (Keener), a music journalist, had an affair with a colleague which provoked Danny into leaving him and his daughter Violet (Steinfeld). Violet has entered the sexual phase of teen angst and dresses provocatively to get attention, much to the horror of her dad and the indifference of her mom.

Greta isn’t without a backstory of her own. A Brit, she’d come to New York with her boyfriend Dave (Levine) who was also a musician but one that a major label had signed. His career trajectory was promising indeed and of course promptly he falls into an affair with Mim (Li), an assistant with the label. Greta had essentially booked her flight home and was staying the night in Steve’s tiny apartment which was how she wound up in the bar in the first place.

Maybe everyone in the bar hears a lifeless tune that sounds like every other folk-influenced song that seems to hold so much sway in alternative rock and pop these days but Danny hears something different. He hears an arrangement with violin, drums, bass, piano and backing vocals. He hears a song that has meaning and will inspire people. After having been on a cold streak for so long he finally hears something that he can work with.

At first Greta isn’t interested. She understandably just wants to go home. However, something about him is sincere. This is a man who needs fixing – as someone who needs fixing herself she can recognize the trait in others. Maybe they can fix each other. That going out on her own and making it as a musician would be a gigantic middle finger to her ex probably had its appeal as well.

Danny comes up with the idea of recording the album live outside of the studio in various outdoor locations in New York – the roof of a building, a subway station, rowing boats in Central Park – sounds kind of gimmicky but Danny uses Steve as an engineer to set up a mobile recording studio (not as hard as it sounds in this digital era) and assembles a band. For financial help, he uses one-time discovery Troublegum (Green) who realizes he owes his success to Danny and is willing to help him be successful once again.

Danny begins to reconnect with Violet who also bonds somewhat with Greta. Danny and Miriam are beginning to make reconciliation noises while back into Greta’s life comes Dave. Will they be able to go back to their past relationships with this new artistic synergy in place? Or will the past drag them down back to where they were before?

Carney also directed Once which may well be the best movie about songwriting and the redemptive power of music on those who write it and those who hear it ever made. Like in that movie, the actors do their own singing and to a large extent, their own playing. Knightley actually has a pretty pleasant voice although it isn’t remarkable. Levine, a veteran of Maroon 5 and a fixture on The Voice, has a kind of asshole role to play and he does surprisingly well, making the character somewhat sympathetic even though his behavior isn’t always the best. In fact, none of the characters here is perfect and all of them are subject to their own flaws at one point or another in the movie.

In fact, the music is pretty dang good here, surprisingly so. The music is mostly the work of Gregg Alexander, better known as the lead vocalist and songwriter for the New Radicals. While the film name checks (or tune checks) luminaries like Leonard Cohen, Hoagie Carmichael, Stevie Wonder and Sinatra, the bulk of the soundtrack is a folky poppy adult alternative that won’t offend anybody unless of course one is offended by folky poppy adult alternative music.

Ruffalo is always solid and while he hasn’t achieved the kind of status of a Tom Hanks or a Brad Pitt, he is nonetheless dependable for turning out good performances and he does the same here. Yeah, Danny has a few personality tics and he can be overbearing but you get the sense that his heart is in the right place – with his estranged wife and daughter. He knows he has some work to do on himself but given the right inspiration he might actually be able to get it all back. One roots for him to do just that.

While this isn’t to the level of Once, this is a better movie than a lot of the disappointing mid-summer films that are out in theaters currently and will certainly be worth having in your library once it makes it to home video. You might just find it in ours when the time comes.

REASONS TO GO: Ruffalo and Knightley had a different kind of chemistry that is strong in its own right. Great music.

REASONS TO STAY: May be too offbeat for some. A little bit fairy tale-esque.

FAMILY VALUES:  A fair amount of profanity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Knightley had to learn to play the guitar for her role and her husband, musician James Righton, offered to teach her but his lessons proved to be so atrocious that, in her own words, “they nearly led to divorce and murder,” but the couple remain happily married to date.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/23/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Once

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: 22 Jump Street

I’m Still Here


I'm Still Here

Joaquin Phoenix prepares for his next role in the remake of Grizzly Adams.

(2010) Mockumentary (Magnolia) Joaquin Phoenix, Antony Langdon, Casey Affleck, Jack Nicholson, Billy Crystal, Danny Glover, Bruce Willis, Robin Wright, Ben Stiller, Mos Def, Sean Combs, Jamie Foxx, Edward James Olmos, David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, Natalie Portman. Directed by Casey Affleck

 

We have an image of stars in our heads as self-absorbed divas who throw tantrums if they don’t get things EXACTLY the way they want it (“I told you, no BROWN M&M’s…why is that so hard?”) they throw legendary tantrums. We are fascinated by their behavior.

Which is what the makers of I’m Still Here are banking on. This is a chronicle of actor Joaquin Phoenix, who famously retired from acting after the 2008 indie romance Two Lovers to embark upon a rap career. He had a meltdown on the David Letterman show, one in which the host quipped “I’m sorry you couldn’t be here tonight Joaquin” which is shown here.

He also has an assistant named Anton (Langdon) that he humiliates  and abuses mercilessly, so much so that Anton takes a dump into the actor’s face while he’s sleeping. Such is the abuse that you will not think the act unjustified, although be assured that he’s not really doing what he appears to be doing. In fact, Phoenix is abusive to nearly everybody here to the point where it’s amazing that anyone would be willingly employed by him. Which is ironic because in reality, there were sexual harrassment charges brought against the filmmakers which were settled out of court.

There was some debate as to whether this whole thing was an elaborate hoax. At the time people were unsure and many of the reviews of the film from its 2010 release reflect that the critics were unsure and confused.

Let me set the record straight – it’s a hoax. Of course it was. Would Joaquin Phoenix allow a movie that portrayed him as an tyrannical egomaniac that is borderline psychotic ever see the light of day? Think about the logic; if someone is as egotistical as Phoenix is made out to be here, he would never allow his image to be tarnished.

I mean, Phoenix’ rap music is borderline unlistenable – and everybody but Phoenix knows it. Affleck’s camera captures the reactions to the music; from polite disbelief to outright hostility. Nobody but Affleck and Phoenix are in on the joke (and maybe some of the actors, such as Langdon) so you get their genuine reactions to situations that are awkward.

Which is fine, but the audience ends up being caught in the awkwardness, much like watching a friend who’s had too much to drink soil themselves. You want to get up, make your excuses and get as far away from the train wreck as possible which is not how you want your audience to feel. The truth is, this is really an exercise in ego – you’re not let in on the joke (which is a cardinal sin) and expected not to feel the fool when you figure it out – because if you don’t you wind up completely repulsed. Part of my distaste is the portrayal of Phoenix as a borderline drug addict – which considering the way his brother River passed away really stretches the line as far as I’m concerned.

There are a lot of celebrity cameos (as you can see from the credits above) and I believe none of them are in on the joke either. So you get the sense that the hoaxers did their jobs too well – they’ve really put one over on all of us to the point that there are plenty of people who think that it wasn’t a hoax. For me, seeing is believing.

WHY RENT THIS: Occasionally amusing.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A crude exercise in ego. Not nearly as funny or engrossing as they think it is.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some graphic nudity and drug use, a plethora of swear words, plenty of anti-social behavior and crude content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The person in the film that is playing Joaquin Phoenix’ father is actually Casey Affleck’s dad.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are some conversations in which Affleck, Phoenix and various critics and academics discuss the film, the hoax and the aftermath.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $568,963 on an unreported production budget; this might have just made some money

COMPARISON SHOPPING: This Is Spinal Tap

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Matrix

The Italian Job (2003)


The Italian Job

That Mini-Cooper could probably fit inside that helicopter with room to spare.

(2003) Action (Paramount) Mark Wahlberg, Charlize Theron, Edward Norton, Jason Statham, Mos Def, Seth Green, Donald Sutherland, Boris Lee Krutonog, Julie Costello, Gawtti, Franky G, Aaron Speiser, Olek Krupa, Thomas Alexander. Directed by F. Gary Gray

 

It started out as a perfect heist. The brazen pilfering of Venetian gold, misdirection to lead pursuit away, and the recovery of the ill-gotten gains. Better still, this wasn’t the work of mastermind John Bridger (Sutherland), who is looking to get out of the game for good, but of his protégé, Charlie Croker (Wahlberg), who is taking over the crew.

Unexpectedly, they are betrayed by Steve (Norton) one of their own, who wants all the gold for himself. Knowing that Bridger has an aversion to carrying guns, Steve brings a few of his own and uses them. Most of the crew gets away, but John Bridger does not.

Fast forward a few years. The crew has managed to track down the elusive Steve back to Los Angeles, and are just itching for a little payback – not to mention the gold they stole. Left Ear (Mos Def), computer expert Napster (Green) and driver Handsome Rob (Statham) have reunited with Charlie, but they need an expert safecracker to take John’s old role. It so happens that John’s daughter Stella (Theron) has become an excellent safecracker, after a fashion; she is a security consultant who tests the vulnerability of safes for large corporations. She’s not really interested in ill-gotten gains, but it turns out she is very interested in getting revenge on the man who killed her father.

As with most caper movies, there are twists, turns and suspense a-plenty. Some wonderful car chases, some terrific action sequences and a nice bit of poetic justice near the end, although I couldn’t really call it an unexpected twist. Director F. Gary Gray is a bit too heavy-handed for that. He also has too many extraneous characters in the movie. I’m not sure if he’s trying to do some misdirection of his own, but it doesn’t work.

We could have done without the Russian mobsters and the informant, Skinny Pete (Gawtti). Frankly, some of the gang could have used a little more screen time. Gray, however, cast this movie to near-perfection. Green is fast becoming the Steve Buscemi for a new generation; he is nervous, quirky and always entertaining when he is riffing on his own. Statham is perfectly cast as Handsome Rob, the driver. He is absolutely riveting when he is on screen, and while he hasn’t gotten the huge screen star career I thought he was going to when I first saw this, he has managed to carve out a pretty satisfying niche in the action genre and has made some fairly nice films, although there is a lot of b-movie drekk in there as well. Wahlberg is settling into an action-hero niche nicely, although I’ve found him to be one-dimensional at times here but he nicely fills the role of the resourceful mastermind for the purposes of this film.

It is Theron who really caught my notice. Up until this point I’d never been very fond of her – she’sd always seemed kind of prissy in most of the movies I’ve seen her in up until this film, but she really held her own, and quite frankly, she looks better than she ever has at least until Snow White and the Huntsman (I know, I know, I’m a shallow, shallow man). Edward Norton gets to be a smarmy bad guy, a role in which he excels and pretty much perfects here.

The psychology of the movie is a little predictable; father-figure gets gunned down in front of the impressionable eyes of the hero, who seeks justice and gets it without getting his hands dirty. You know that the trigger-happy Norton is going to get his at the end of the movie, but you can’t have the hero getting blood on his hands; Hollywood might be going retro, but the anti-hero is a bit too retro for the tastes of most studios. I think it’s a bit hypocritical to line up Wahlberg as a criminal, but then he’s not a murderer, so he’s not too bad a guy. Of course, I could just be getting too grumpy in my old age.

Some movies should never be remade. Others can benefit from an updating. The 1969 Michael Caine caper movie on which this one is based is not what you would call a classic, but it is a movie of its time. That said, The Italian Job does what another remake, 2001`s Oceans 11 set out to do; take a movie of its time and make it timeless. Oceans 11 succeeded in its attempt, which isn’t as easy as it sounds. The Italian Job doesn’t quite become timeless, but it is an entertaining movie, and as the years have passed it has remained that way. I guess it is timeless after all.

WHY RENT THIS: Great action sequences. Theron emerges as a major star. Fun summer entertainment. Great ensemble.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Wahlberg lacks the charisma I would have liked to have seen here. A little bit predictable.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of violence and a lot of action.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Lyle’s girlfriend at the end of the film is played by Kelly Brook, who was Jason Statham’s actual girlfriend at the time.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There is a featurette on Mini-Coopers (which are used extensively in the chase sequence) and on the actors two weeks in drivers school (they did a lot of their own driving stunts).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $176.1M on a $60M production budget; the film was a hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Oceans 11

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: A Beautiful Life

New Releases for the Week of August 12, 2011


August 12, 2011

FINAL DESTINATION 5

(New Line) Nicholas D’Agosto, Emma Bell, Miles Fisher, Arlen Escapreta, David Koechner, Tony Todd, Courtney B. Vance, P.J. Byrne, Ellen Wroe. Directed by Steven Quale

When a suspension bridge collapses, several young people are saved from certain doom by the premonition one young man has about the impending disaster. The survivors are then picked off one by one in various elaborate and gruesome ways. Note to self: this summary can be used for any Final Destination movie past present or future, substituting only the specific disasters; speedway crash, bus crash, roller coaster crash, airplane explosion. See how easy a preview summary can be?

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D

Genre: Supernatural Horror

Rating: R (for strong violence/gruesome accidents, and some language)

30 Minutes or Less

(Columbia) Jesse Eisenberg, Danny McBride, Aziz Ansari, Michael Pena. The follow-up from the director of Zombieland concerns a couple of bumbling criminals who concoct a crazy scheme to get others to rob banks for them. They simply strap a bomb to their chest and tell them they have 30 minutes to rob a bank or they’ll get blowed up real good. They choose a hapless stoner of a pizza delivery guy as their pigeon, but things go way out of control from there.

See the trailers, interviews, clips and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Crime Comedy

Rating: R (for crude and sexual content, pervasive language, nudity and some violence)

Another Earth

(Fox Searchlight) Brit Marling, William Mapother, Jordan Baker, Robin Lord Taylor. The lives of an aspiring astrophysicist and a brilliant composer are linked by a terrible tragedy on the eve of the most amazing discovery in the history of the planet. A duplicate Earth has been discovered and the lives of these two people – and everyone else on the planet – are about to be irrevocably changed.

See the trailer, clips and interviews here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: PG-13 (for disturbing images, some sexuality, nudity and brief drug use)

Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest

(Sony Classics) Common, Ludacris, Q-Tip, Mos Def. One of the most acclaimed and influential hip hop groups ever was A Tribe Called Quest. Although their members have gone on to other careers and the group broke up far too soon in the minds of some, their music remains a testament to how innovative and cutting edge rap can be. This Michael Rappaport-directed documentary goes backstage with the band and explores the drama that surrounded them (and eventually broke them apart) as well as the creative process behind some of the greatest hip hop songs ever.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Musical Documentary

Rating: R (for language)

The Devil’s Double

(Lionsgate) Dominic Cooper, Ludivine Sagnier, Raad Rawi, Philip Quast. A simple soldier is chosen to be the body double for the notorious son of Saddam Hussein, the Black Prince Uday Hussein. Forced into this service in order to keep his family safe, the young soldier is thrust into a glamorous world of drugs, sex and brutality as he is witness to the depravity of a modern-day monster.

See the trailer, interviews and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: True Life Drama

Rating: R (for strong bloody violence and torture, sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and pervasive language)

Glee: The 3D Concert Movie

(20th Century Fox) Lea Michele, Corey Monteith, Kevin McHale, Amber Riley. Gleeks everywhere are getting an emotional chubby knowing that their time is finally here. The hit television show has spawned a multi-city tour which has been in turn made into a 3D concert movie. You can be there, right onstage as the kids from “Glee” belt out vapid covers of songs from the last 30 years. I’m not sure which would be worse torture, this or the Justin Bieber concert movie. It’s a toss-up.

See the trailer and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Genre: Musical

Rating: PG (for some rude and suggestive humor, and language)

The Help

(Disney) Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer. When a young journalist fresh out of college decides to write a feature on the lives of the household servants in Jackson, Mississippi in the mid-1960s she puts all of them at grave risk. Based on a best-selling novel, the story unfolds into an unlikely but deep abiding friendship that shows how the power of the truth can cause changes in even the most entrenched behavior (Opening Wednesday August 10).

See the trailer, clips, featurettes and interviews here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material)

Cadillac Records


Adrian Brody smirks after winning a bet with Jeffrey Wright.

Adrian Brody smirks after winning a bet with Jeffrey Wright.

(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

TOMORROW: Zombieland