Sex, drugs, rhythm and blues -- and yes, ultimately rock 'n' roll -- are much in evidence in this entertaining musical drama about the 1950s birth of Chicago's Chess Records and its profound effect on popular music in the United States. The genre of biopics about phenomenally popular American recording artists have flourished for years (La Bamba, The Buddy Holly Story, Ray), and this saga of fame and fortune, decline and fall doesn't stray far from the tried-and-true formula. Yet a key difference in writer-director Darnell Martin's film is that it surveys the careers of several seminal singers from the 1950s and '60s, while painting a sweeping portrait of the roots and growth of a revolutionary music movement.
Martin reportedly researched her facts fastidiously, though it's immediately clear she has taken dramatic licenses, as the focal character Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody), who founded the recording empire, is a composite of two real-life brothers. The film has its historic value, but more than anything, it functions as a juicy showbiz potboiler energized by a kickass soundtrack, in which the actors, for the most part, re-create golden-oldie chart toppers.
Narrated by the character of singer Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer), the story begins by introducing us to ambitious Polish immigrant Chess, who opens a bar and soon hires a singing group to entertain there, including amiable singer Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright) and high-strung harmonica player Little Walter (Columbus Short). Waters' charismatic talent prompts Chess to secure a recording session for him, and his stardom as an R&B vocalist quickly begins; soon Walter's career also ignites. Other singers (Howlin' Wolf, played by Eamonn Walker, and Dixon) join the burgeoning Chess fold. More greatness is to come with the enlistment of Chuck Berry (Mos Def), who breaks barriers by appealing to white and black audiences, and Etta James (Beyoncé Knowles), a talented but troubled artist. Chemical dependencies, changing public tastes, rivalries over women, criminal acts, and jail time cause the singers' idyllic existences to unravel, as the story makes it way down familiar melodramatic paths.
The pace occasionally lags, but the creditable work of the cast mostly keeps things on track. Brody is intriguing as the slick entrepreneur, playing the role with enough ambiguity to be neither hero nor heel. Wright provides the most galvanic performance, capturing the dignity and strength of an intensely driven prodigy. Short is likewise impressive as Waters' loose-cannon protégé, a self-destructive character with a Joe Pesci edge. Indelible turns are offered by Cedric, Def, Walker, and Gabrielle Union as Waters' beleaguered wife. Beyonce, the film's executive producer, isn't consistently convincing as the severely addicted James, but her portrayal seems to work better during the climactic scenes. All in all, this is a satisfying genre film showcasing splendid actors on the rise.
Genre: Musical Drama
Written and directed by: Darnell Martin
Starring: Adrien Brody, Jeffrey Wright, Columbus Short, Cedric the Entertainer, Mos Def, Beyoncé Knowles