Move over, Truman Capote: Another movie duel to the death?


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When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time in Chicago, home of two great baseball teams, a host of colorful politicians and the best blues in the world. 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--what are the odds of two 1950s blues movies being 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. ‘When I was in fifth grade, I was convinced I was Marvin Gaye. I’d put on the records I loved, everything from Gaye and Johnny Nash to Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley, and sing to the records in front of the mirror. 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 are 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.’

Hhmm. Like I said, making movies isn’t always a rational decision. Will Beyonce fans want to see her as a troubled ‘50s blues diva? Angelina Jolie fans do show up when she’s trading gunfire with Brad Pitt, but they didn’t bother to come when she played Mariane Pearl in ‘A Mighty Heart.’ And George Clooney fans, who loved him in ‘Oceans Eleven,’ turned up their noses at ‘Leatherheads’ and ‘The Good German.’

Music biopics have a pretty spotty track record. Taylor Hackford’s ‘Ray’ was a surprise hit (though it was also independently financed outside the studio system). But ‘She’s Not There,’ Todd Haynes’ impressionistic Bob Dylan biopic, never found an audience, despite a raft of rave reviews. Even ‘Dreamgirls,’ the Bill Condon film loosely based on the Supremes, was a box-office disappointment.

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. Which film took the most liberties? Which actor came the closest to capturing his real-life character? And which movie ended up cutting Chuck Berry entirely out of the story? We’ll have Part 2 of our post up soon, so stay tuned.

Photo: Beyonce Knowles as Etta James in ‘Cadillac Records’: photo credit: Eric Liebowitz