The classic beat and unique sound of the blues is recreated in this music industry biopic that traces the origins of Chess Records and its famous recording artists, who have been enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody from "The Pianist"), a Jewish immigrant from Poland, gives up the scrap metal business in Chicago and opens a black nightclub called Club Macambo, where he books local talent.
He crosses paths in 1947 with Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright, recently seen in "Quantum of Solace" and "W."), a sharecropper from Mississippi who left the plantation with his guitar.
When the club mysteriously burns down, Chess uses the insurance money to buy a recording studio. This also marks the start of the pivotal record label.
The marquee title comes from the type of car that Chess would give to his stable of A-list stars after he signed them to long-term employment contracts. These legendary performers included Etta James (Beyoncé Knowles from "Dreamgirls"), Chuck Berry (Mos Def), harmonica virtuoso Little Walter (Kansas City native Columbus Short) and Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker).
Cedric the Entertainer narrates this relatively unknown story and plays songwriter Willie Dixon. These early blues pioneers established roots from which sprang rock and roll.
The great soundtrack (available either as a single disc or deluxe two-disc set from Sony) will be a coveted collector’s item for music enthusiasts. This is much more than a concert film with a dramatic heft that reflects the heavy toll exacted by fame and fortune. Their behind-closed-doors private lives are investigated as well with speculation that Chess had a clandestine love affair with James.
Standing by their respective men are Gabrielle Union as Waters’ wife and Emmanuelle Chriqui as Chess’ spouse.
Writer-director Darnell Martin makes her feature film debut after an extensive background in television. She has tried to stuff in too much material and cover a lot of ground in less than two hours. The continuity suffers from so many disjointed pieces spanning over two decades (the years 1947-1969).
The weak production values and cheap sets, costumes and wigs reflect a tight budget. This movie, based on a true story, takes liberties with the facts (there were actually two Chess brothers, Leonard and Phil).
Interesting trivia revealed is that the group The Rolling Stones got their name from a Muddy Waters song.
Knowles can really belt out a song and puts a cap on the proceedings with the crossover hit ballad "At Last." Wright makes the most of his extensive screen time and stands out with a well-rounded performance. The ensemble cast makes a strong showing and puts on a triumphant acting showcase.
This movie is entertaining and covers adult themes. It shows the prejudice and intolerance of the late 1950s and early ’60s. Although not in the same league as "Dreamgirls," it exceeds expectations, providing a worthwhile viewing experience.
Keith Cohen, "The Movie Guy"