Pioneering Chicago label gets satisfying star treatment in bio-pic
This rollicking pop musical in a period setting thrives on a surprising combination of lively music and richly engaging performances. And part of the fun comes of its also being a kind of bio-pic for a pioneering record label—Chess Records in mid-century Chicago.
The Chess brothers, Leonard and Phil, started recording local blues artists in Chicago around 1950, and over the course of a decade or so they put some epoch-making talent on to the airwaves and into record stores. In the process, they also brought black artists to success with white audiences and made major inroads in the emergence of rock music in the 1950s.
Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, Little Walter Jacobs, Willie Dixon, Chuck Berry and Etta James are all present as characters and performers alike in the film’s unfolding dramas and episodic history, and each of these figures is played with authority and verve by a contemporary performer.
Adrien Brody (Leonard Chess) and Jeffrey Wright (Muddy Waters) are both outstanding in the film’s pivotal roles, but there is no drop off in quality at all in Beyoncé Knowles (as Etta James) and Mos Def (as Chuck Berry). And Cedric the Entertainer is perfectly credible as bassist/songwriter Willie Dixon, who also serves as the story’s voice-over narrator.
Writer-director Darnell Martin has cut a few corners with the actual story, including exclusion of Phil Chess and the great Bo Diddley from the action. But she has still put together a very lively mix of the historical record here, and she makes the most of her multi-talented cast, gifted as musicians and thespians alike.
Martin’s screenplay touches on a potent array of social issues—race, ethnicity, gender, class. But it’s at its sharpest when exploring the dynamics of key relationships in this record company’s cross-cultural stew—especially Leonard Chess’ revolving partnership with Waters, Muddy’s culturally inflected rivalry with Howlin Wolf (a regal Eamon Walker), Berry’s wily dalliances with figures of white authority.
Martin fares less well with the lethally inclined Little Walter (played with suave nonchalance by Columbus Short) and with the emotionally fraught romance between Leonard Chess and Etta James. But such lapses matter only a little amid the robust high spirits of this multi-faceted entertainment.
And not the least of the pleasures involved emerges in the parts played by automobiles—vintage Cadillacs which are special emblems of prestige in the milieu of Leonard Chess and his star musicians.