by Rick Grant
B+ / Rated R / 109 min
Given that most all successful musicians think that producers, managers, and record companies are somehow ripping them off, this movie exposes that paranoia. However, writer/director Darnell Martin’s cleverly written scenario chronicles on the rise and fall of Chess Records that put the early blues icons on the radio and into the collective consciousness of the 1950s music scene. It’s up to the viewer to decide whether or not these early blues players were ripped off by Chess Records.
Polish entrepreneur, Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody) opened a nightclub in an African American neighborhood of Chicago. After a series of fights, ethnic lightning (arson) hit the club and it burned down. Leonard used the insurance money to open a recording studio. He first recorded Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright) and used payola to disk jockeys to play his singles.
Waters’ success brought other talented blues players into the Chess “family,” such as harmonica sensation, Little Walter,(Columbus Short) Howling Wolf, (Eamonn Walker) songwriter/performer Willie Dixon,(Cedric the Entertainer) and later rock’n’roll inventor, Chuck Berry (Mos Def) and Etta James (Beyonce Knowles) into the Chess stable.
The script insinuates that Leonard invested heavily in these early blues players, giving them all Cadillacs and making them household words. Of course, that took money and Leonard realized that without his stable of artists he’d be nothing. In other words, the artists paid for the Cadillacs with their earned money.
Yet, Muddy Waters was paranoid and was always questioning Leonard about his money. But without Leonard’s production and managerial skills, Muddy Waters and the rest of Chess’ stable would have never done it on their own. He was a tireless promoter of his artists’ work. He presented his artists as successful, after all, they drove Cadillacs, which gave the perception that these were stars and demanded respect. In most cases it was true. Then the problems with alcohol and drugs began to corrupt the integrity of Chess’ stable. Little Walter was getting in trouble and in a shocking scene, he kills a musician who was impersonating him.
Leonard and Waters had a shaky business relationship, but Waters was there to support Leonard when bad things happened. He was as much more of a friend than Leonard could expect from these talented but flawed artists. One day Waters was playing in a slave shack and the next day he’s in Chicago being recorded and promoted on the radio. It was a quantum leap of circumstances. Leonard made that happen almost overnight.
When Chuck Berry walked into Leonard’s studio, he realized that Berry had something truly different and highly marketable. Disk Jockey Alan Freed tagged it rock’n’roll which stuck. Indeed, I agree with Martin’s script, Chuck Berry was the inventor of rock’n’roll that captivated a whole generation of young people and bred the white covers like Elvis and others. A short scene depicts the young Rolling Stones arriving at Leonard’s studio. When they saw Muddy Waters they said he was their idol. He’d never heard of them.
An important part of the scenario is Etta James’, (played skillfully by Beyonce Knowles) relationship with Leonard who made her a star until she burned out on heroin. His aim was to cross her over into the mainstream, which he did successfully. But, James came with heavy baggage of emotional problems and drug addiction. The scenario shows that Leonard was smitten by James, but tried to stay true to his wife.
This film is an interesting historical account of how Chess broke the racial barrier with its artists at a time when Leonard Chess could have been arrested for driving with a black guy. So they pretended Waters was his chauffeur. Now the names Waters, Wolf, and Dixon, are icons and early purveyors of the blues that gave birth to rock’n’roll.