Chess: the film of the music label

The latest musical biopic may be flawed, but the story it tells of a legendary blues and rock'n'roll label is compelling, writes Pierre Perrone
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The Independent Culture

Directed by Darnell Martin, Cadillac Records tells the story of Chess, the Chicago blues and rock'n'roll label that, in the Fifties and Sixties, gave the world Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Willie Dixon, Howlin' Wolf, Chuck Berry and Etta James (Jimmy Rodgers, Sonny Boy Williamson, John Lee Hooker, Bo Diddley and Buddy Guy don't get a look-in). The film rightly includes re-enactments of Waters' trip to the UK in 1967 and the Rolling Stones' 1964 visit to the famed Chess recording studios, where they recorded the Five By Five EP, even naming an instrumental "2120 South Michigan Avenue" after the address.

There has certainly been a plethora of music biopics in recent years. In 2004, we had Ray, the Taylor Hackford film starring Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles. With its subject dying just a few months before its release, Ray benefited from a lot of goodwill, and grossed over three times its budget of $40m (£28m), earning Foxx the Oscar for best actor along the way. The following year, director James Mangold pulled off more or less the same trick with Joaquin Phoenix as the recently deceased Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, even if it was Reese Witherspoon who won the statuette for her portrayal of June Carter Cash, who had also just died.

George Tillman Jr's Notorious, which tells the story of Christopher Wallace, aka the late rapper Notorious BIG, portrayed by Jamal Woolard, is still in cinemas, but the biopic Cadillac Records most closely resembles is Dreamgirls. And I'm not saying that just because Beyoncé Knowles adds glamour to both films, and both are sprawling victims of their directors' ambition.

Based on a 1981 musical by Tom Eyen, Bill Condon's Dreamgirls was a thinly veiled attempt at telling the story of Tamla Motown through the Dreams, a girl group with more than a passing resemblance to the Supremes. Jamie Foxx – him again – portrayed Curtis Taylor Jr, a mogul reminiscent of a certain Berry Gordy Jr, the man behind the Detroit label "Sound of Young America", while Eddie Murphy played a composite of several soul stars, but most closely resembled Marvin Gaye. Knowles grabbed the "Diana Ross" part of Deena Jones for herself, but it was Jennifer Hudson as Effie White – the tragic "Florence Ballard" role – who won the Oscar for best supporting actress in 2007.

The success of Ray, Walk the Line, and especially Dreamgirls at the box-office and the Oscars meant that Darnell Martin, best known for helming episodes of television series such as Law & Order, got the green light to make Cadillac Records. "I wanted to be sure that it wasn't a film about two white guys who 'discovered' the blues," she says. Understandably, she opted to concentrate on Leonard Chess, the oldest of the two Polish-immigrant brothers, who died in 1969, and to relegate his brother Phil, who is still alive today, to the background. While this works well from a storytelling point of view, it plays fast and loose with the facts, even if Leonard, as portrayed by Adrien Brody, was undoubtedly the driving force, taking over Aristocrat Records, and turning Chess into a company dedicated to "race music" in the late Forties.

Still, Jeffrey Wright makes a compelling Muddy Waters, his relationship with the label boss and harmonica-player Little Walter – the excellent Columbus Short – being at the heart of the film, for the first half certainly. "In many ways, the film is a buddy picture, or even a love story, between Little Walter and Muddy Waters," explains Martin. "I could not have written the screenplay without Walter's character. He's the one I felt was really speaking to me as I wrote. He's the first Tupac. He didn't have the "plantation" mentality, he sneered at people who liked him. When he was invited to play concerts in Britain by the young musicians who revered him, he'd play poorly just to prove a point. He was so fearless in life but so terribly lost."

In the second half, Cadillac Records switches mood and focus, concentrating on Leonard's turbulent relationship with the tortured singer Etta James, though Marshall Chess, his son, denies that there was ever a hint of a romance between his father and the singer. Executive producer Knowles, whose name and fame helped to sell Dreamgirls – in which her character definitely had an affair with the boss – might have insisted on those changes in order to beef up her part. The superstar certainly seems to have relished the role, even if the original was less than charitable about her portrayal and her showboating when performing "At Last", her signature song, at Barack Obama's inauguration.

Cadillac Records tells several rags-to-riches stories, throwing in Howlin' Wolf – Eamonn Walker – and Cedric the Entertainer – Willie Dixon, who also narrates the film in character – into the mix for good measure. Eric Bogosian has a great cameo as Alan Freed, the DJ who coined the term "rock'n'roll", pleaded guilty to charges of commercial bribery, or "payola", and was the subject of American Hot Wax, one of the first music biopics, in 1978. And Cadillac Records has the classic cars (the film's title recalls the fact that the label started selling albums from the back of Chess's Cadillac), the booze, the sex, the drugs, and plenty of rock'n'roll. The movie tries to appeal to as wide a demographic as possible, from fans of the original Chess records – licensed first to London and then to Pye in the UK – to the Beyoncé generation, via aficionados of the Stones, the Yardbirds and all the British blues boom bands who worshipped at the Chess altar in the Sixties, and admirers of the actor and rapper Mos Def, whose uncanny turn as Chuck Berry will have the rock'n'roller watching his back.

Yet, as you listen to new material such as "Once in a Lifetime", co-written by Knowles, Amanda Ghost and Ian Dench unnecessarily added to the soundtrack when vintage Chess sides and the new versions of Chess classics by the principals would have sufficed, you realise that this is a missed opportunity. Even if Martin does feel that she injected plenty of youthful energy and rebellion in Cadillac Records: "There's a line in the film from Willie Dixon, 'If you could play the guitar, you were Superman'. That's a powerful thing to feel, to articulate, and it's there in the songs. That's the spirit of the music that spoke so strongly to young people around the world, and the spirit I tried to capture in the stories of these lives. The blues is about bravado."

Cadillac Records might be a flawed film, but the Chess story has proved so compelling a topic that another director, Jerry Zaks, came up with Who Do You Love, which pipped Martin's movie to premiere at the Toronto Film Festival last September. Based more or less on the same characters, it doesn't leave Phil or Marshall Chess – a consultant on both projects anyway – out of the story, and also features musicians Robert Randolph and Keb' Mo' as Bo Diddley and Jimmy Rodgers respectively. One to look forward to.

'Cadillac Records' is on general release