YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Lots of players in Chess game

October 21, 2008|Patrick Goldstein | Goldstein is a Times staff writer.

Back in the day, you weren't anyone in the blues world unless you were signed to Chess Records, the label that made stars out of a generation of rough and tumble musicians, notably Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Willie Dixon and Howlin' Wolf.

So when I was at the recent Toronto Film Festival, I made a point of seeing "Who Do You Love," which stars Alessandro Nivola and Jon Abrahams as Leonard and Phil Chess, two hard-nosed immigrant entrepreneurs who ended up creating Chess Records, the 1950s record label that popularized urban blues and later, with the arrival of Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, ushered in a brash new form of rock 'n' roll that was adopted by the Rolling Stones, the Beatles and thousands of other young white rock artists.

After the screening, I ran into a film executive, who whispered in my ear, "Do you know that there's another one?" Puzzled, I said, "Another what?" He laughed. "Another movie about Chess Records."

I really thought he was joking, but it's true. Against all odds and sound commercial judgment, the same crazy movie business that once made two asteroid movies and two movies about Truman Capote has now made two movies about the obscure icons of 1950s Chicago blues. What are the odds?

The second Chess film, made by Sony BMG Films, is "Cadillac Records," which will be released Dec. 5 through Sony's TriStar Pictures. Produced by Sofia Sondervan and Andy Lack, Sony BMG's former chairman (who just took a new job running Bloomberg's multimedia operations), the film has considerably more star power than its rival, featuring Beyonce Knowles as Chess' top songstress, Etta James; Adrien Brody as Leonard Chess; Mos Def as Chuck Berry; and Jeffrey Wright as Muddy Waters.

It's probably a misnomer to call the two pictures rivals, since "Who Do You Love," despite earning some good notices in Toronto, remains a long shot to land a theatrical release. "Cadillac Records" will be out in 800 theaters, with a Beyonce single and a soundtrack to help attract attention. Still, the question remains: Why would two 1950s blues movies be made at the same time?

The answer, as always, is that making a movie isn't exactly a rational decision -- passion trumps pragmatism. Neither film came out of today's increasingly timid studio system, which wouldn't dream of risking any loot on such obscure subject matter. "Cadillac Records" was championed by Lack, the former head of NBC News who ran Sony Music before being kicked upstairs after its BMG merger. According to Sondervan, Lack's family is from the Mississippi Delta, where he grew up listening to the blues, which gave him a strong interest in the story. "Who Do You Love" was financed by Jonathan Mitchell, a wealthy real estate developer with a love for the blues and directed by Jerry Zaks, who remembers singing to R&B records as a boy in his family basement.

"I was always drawn to black music," recalls Zaks, a four-time Tony Award-winning Broadway theater director. "I think that music had a powerful impact on a whole generation of kids."

But those kids are all nearing retirement age today and not especially regular moviegoers. So who's going to turn out for these films? When I asked Sondervan what made her think a blues movie could make a dent in today's marketplace, she offered an honest answer. "I don't really know," she said. "All I know is that Beyonce has a huge young following and a lot of people will come see the movie just because she's in it." She added that Beyonce has designed a clothing line of dresses inspired by the fashions in the film that is being launched later this fall at Bloomingdale's. "All the young people we've shown the film to really loved it," she says. "The blues is coming back. It's getting played at a lot of trendy restaurants, so there's a lot of new awareness out there."

The real challenge for films that re-create the lives of real characters is: How true to life are they? Sony hasn't screened "Cadillac Records" yet, but the person who knows the story best of all -- Leonard's son, Marshall Chess, who served as a technical consultant on both projects -- says both movies took some dramatic liberties with many of the characters' personal lives.

After an early screening of "Who Do You Love," a pair of women sought out Marshall Chess, whose dad was the driving force behind the label. They were puzzled about one of the key story lines in the film. "Did your mother and father really make up after your father had that torrid affair with that beautiful singer?" one of them asked.

Marshall rolled his eyes. "No, they didn't make up," he said, "because there never was an affair. The filmmakers made that part up."

Los Angeles Times Articles