Chess Records movie duel Part 2: Fact vs. fiction

This article was originally on a blog post platform and may be missing photos, graphics or links. See About archive blog posts.

After an early screening of ‘Who Do You Love,’ one of the--count ‘em--two new movies about 1950s powerhouse blues label Chess Records, a pair of women sought out Marshall Chess, whose dad, Leonard, was the driving force behind the record 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.’ When it comes to making movies about real-life people, Hollywood rarely lets the truth get in the way of a good story. No one knows that better now that Marshall Chess, who served as a technical consultant on the two competing Chess Records films, but discovered that while the actors and filmmakers were happy to listen to his recollections, it hardly meant that they would stick to the truth when it came time to film his family’s story. Marshall knows the story intimately, having been behind the bar at his father’s nightclub as a boy, seen his father hustle DJs on road tours and worked at Chess Records as a teenager.


He’s delighted to see two films dramatizing his family history, but he’s ambivalent about the results. ‘I guess I have a love-hate relationship with the movies,’ he told me recently. ‘They capture the spirit and the music wonderfully, but the truth isn’t always there.’ He’s especially upset over how ‘Cadillac Records,’ a film that stars Beyonce as Etta James and Oscar-winner Adrien Brody as Leonard Chess, cuts Leonard’s brother, Phil, the co-founder of the record company, entirely out of the movie.

‘It’s a horrible distortion of history,’ says Marshall. ‘They started the company together. My uncle Phil was there every day. He recorded a lot of the best music we did. It wouldn’t have happened without him and it’s a real insult to our family. When I asked the producers, they simply said his character didn’t work [in the script], so they cut him out.’

When it comes to cutting people out of the Chess story, the rival ‘Who Do You Love’ film has its own issues. The biggest-selling artist in Chess history is Chuck Berry, but his character was cut out of the movie. Why? Because the filmmakers couldn’t make a deal for the rights to his music. The film’s producer, Les Alexander, explains: ‘We made Chuck a spectacularly generous offer, but he wouldn’t let us have anything. Our director, Jerry Zaks, even sent him a genuine fan note, saying how much his music meant to him. But it didn’t matter--the answer was no.’

Berry, who is still active as a touring act, is notoriously difficult when it comes to business matters. When Taylor Hackford, who directed the wonderful Berry concert film ‘Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll,’ recently ran into the performer, the first words out of Berry’s mouth were, ‘You still owe me money.’ Mos Def plays Berry in ‘Cadillac Records,’ which managed to acquire some Berry songs that are owned by Marshall Chess. But dealing with Berry was so unbelievably arduous that when I asked the film’s producer, Sofia Sondervan, about working with him, she replied in a hushed tone: ‘I can’t talk about it. I can’t say anything about Chuck Berry at all.’

The ‘Who Do You Love’ filmmakers defend their decision to show Leonard having an affair with a Chess artist who is clearly based on Etta James. ‘The question you always ask yourself is--are you illuminating who they were or are you assassinating their character?’ says Zaks. ‘For me, the affair represents part of the seduction of success, which is a big part of the conflict in the movie’s story. We did our own research and it seems evident that Leonard was a womanizer. Even his brother Phil says he had numerous affairs.’

The filmmakers had less leeway in portraying Willie Dixon, the now-deceased songwriter (played by Chi McBride) who wrote most of Chess’ biggest hits. Producer Les Alexander says, ‘We were prohibited by his estate as portraying him as someone who drank or smoked or sweared.’ Nonetheless, the film shows Dixon having two wives, who begrudgingly share his time together. ‘The estate didn’t prohibit that,’ Alexander says.

Both films depict Chess giving his top artists a Cadillac after they had big chart-topping hits. It’s a way for the films to capture the back-door way business was handled in the early days of the record industry, since the artists rarely realized that the expense of buying a Cadillac was deducted from their royalty statements. Marshall says it was a pragmatic way to reward a top artist, noting that few of the bluesmen had bank accounts at the time. ‘Getting a Cadillac in those days was a top of the line thing to have,’ he explains. ‘My father bought a new Cadillac every year too, because he was just like his artists--he wanted people to know he was a successful man.’

Marshall laughs. ‘I guess he’d be happy to see two movies coming out about him at the same time. He’d definitely consider that a symbol of success too.’