Darnell Martin wrote and directed this ‘Sony Music’ film about the story of Chess Records, the Chicago record label that released the best of the electric blues from the late 1940s and early 1950s and introduced Chuck Berry’s rock ‘n roll. Wikipedia reports that Martin was the first African-American woman to direct a feature for a major studio (I Like It Like That, 1994) but since then she has mainly worked on TV, directing a host of top-line shows. Always keen to support women who have made it to feature production, I wish I could recommend this film more strongly. I think the casting is generally very good, all the performances stand up and the music is great, but the narrative is all over the place and the film never really sorts out what kind of genre model it wants to follow.
Martin appears to want to tell the whole Chess story which actually spanned 20 years from 1949 to 1969 and featured many major recording artists and stages in the evolution of black popular music. Obviously there is a necessity for selection and the film’s narrative leaves out important figures and re-arranges the dates of other events for no real reason that I could fathom. I don’t expect music biopics to stick rigidly to all the facts or all the personnel, but some of the decisions here look very odd. Bo Diddley is missing, but I assume that this must be because of rights or some other legal reason. Chess Records was owned and run by two brothers, Leonard and Phil Chess, but only Leonard features in the film. The brothers also owned a number of other labels but I guess that trying to represent this would have been too complicated. The jumbled dates mean that we get TV images of Elvis in the Army (1958-60) when the film’s narrative is actually up to the mid 1960s and the arrival of the Rolling Stones in Chicago (1964) is shown before Etta James’ arrival at the studio in 1960. As Scotland on Sunday‘s reviewer suggested, you’ll probably enjoy the movie more if you know nothing about Chess Records or its artists before you watch it.
The idea of music biopic about a record label seems quite valid to me if difficult to imagine. It would require discipline in selecting acts and recordings and you would need to focus on specific music business procedures or specific professional relationships – perhaps a documentary would be better? Otherwise the biopic should focus on the personal relationships and performances of a smaller group of stars. The problem here is that it isn’t clear who the central protagonist is. The two characters who appear throughout the narrative are Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody) and Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright). But the narrative leaves them behind to some extent to follow Little Walter (Columbus Short) and Chuck Berry (Mos Def) – both more outrageous characters. Howling Wolf (Eamonn Walker) makes a brief (and chilling) appearance and then it’s on to Beyoncé as Etta James. Hovering in the background much of the time is Cedric the Entertainer as Willie Dixon, the songwriter/arranger genius of the outfit.
The dramatic conflict in the story comes from the relationships between Leonard, Muddy and Walter (and their partners) and the real antipathy that develops between Muddy and the Wolf. As far as I can see this was based on Wolf’s contention that Muddy had the wrong kind of business arrangement with Chess (who states clearly that he wants to make money). Chess doesn’t deliberately exploit any of his acts, although he does use some unorthodox strategies and he could perhaps be accused of duping Muddy with payment in cadillacs rather than more conventional royalties. The Wolf is much sharper in his arrangements. The thematic of the problems of white ownership of labels that promoted black artists is one well exploring (the Stax story would be an interesting companion for this film) – it pitches the positive integrationist stances of the music against the negative impact on the problems of self identity of some (many?) blues and soul artists. There is certainly plenty of material here.
There are hints throughout the second half of the movie that all is not well with the label, but the story ends with something of a wimper, as if confirming that the writer/director didn’t know exactly what she wanted. Against this, I have to emphasise again that the music is terrific. Some of the actors play the material themselves (Mos Def and Beyoncé) others mime it – I think. Either way it is well done and the original music score is by Terence Blanchard. I got home and dug out Muddy and the Wolf straightaway.