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Chess vs. ‘Cadillac': The Chicago story

Robert K. Elder
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

The movie "Cadillac Records" tells the story of the artists behind Chicago's famous Chess Records. Notably, Beyonce plays Etta James, Jeffrey Wright brings Muddy Waters to life and Mos Def duckwalks as Chuck Berry.

So why wasn't the movie called "Chess Records"?

"The project wasn't about the Chess brothers, per se," said writer/director Darnell Martin ("I Like It Like That"). "I wasn't really interested in telling the story of the blues, for the first time, coming from the white perspective."

She added, "I wanted to start with the guys who actually made it. I wanted it to be a story about what African-Americans did for popular music."

The Chess brothers will still get their story told, however.

Marshall Chess, the son of Leonard Chess, has executive-produced an indie feature about his father and uncle called "Who Do You Love," which takes its name from the Bo Diddley song. It debuted at the Toronto Film Festival this year but is still awaiting release.

Chess said he has a "love/hate" relationship with both films.

"When it's about your family, you want the history to be real," Chess said.

As a younger man, Chess worked at the label for eight years with his father and uncle. Although his father is played in "Cadillac Records" by Adrien Brody, the movie leaves his uncle Phil out of the story.

"It's insane," Chess said. "It's like doing a film about aviation, with the Wright brothers, but only having one brother. (Phil) was there every day. It was a fully symbiotic, synergistic relationship."

He also takes issue with the onscreen love affair between Leonard and Etta James.

"Now, my father was no angel, but (he) was never caught in an affair," Chess said. "It never happened." He even asked James, a longtime friend, and she told him, "He kissed me on the cheek once."

He has other objections, notably the film's title and the way his father dies.

"That bothers me on a personal level, but that's from the family. Nobody outside the family" cares, Chess said.

Martin said she didn't know about Chess' competing biopic until late into the production of her own film

"('Cadillac Records') wasn't his dad's story. It was the story about these other guys who made the music, so I didn't really feel in competition with it," she said.

Controversy aside, the film has brought more visitors to the historic Chess Records office and studio, at 2120 S. Michigan Ave.

But one person who hasn't made it: "Cadillac Records" writer/director Martin.

"I read about 26 books and talked to some of the old-timers," she said. A trip to Chicago didn't work out, but it wasn't for lack of trying - just time, she said.

"It was primarily because I had so much to do," said Martin. "Strangely enough, I reached out to a lot of people, but people didn't reach back. Nobody wants to talk to you after you've done a spec script."

Martin's movie has generated not only talk, but record sales and a renewed interested in the Chess Records building.

"More people are coming down to the building after the movie," said Alex Dixon, vice president at Willie Dixon Blues Heaven Foundation, which is named for his bluesman grandfather and operates tours at the studio. "We're getting more traffic on our MySpace page."

The movie has helped a new generation discover blues music, Martin said. Etta James' "The Definitive Collection" is back on the Billboard charts, as is the soundtrack for "Cadillac Records," which features Beyonce's cover of James' "At Last" and Wright growling through Muddy Waters' "I Can't Be Satisfied."

Martin consulted with Chess on the label's most famous songs, which he controls.

"(It) is great - that's what I wanted," said Martin of the renewed interest. "I always told people, 'I swear to you, if we do it right, people are going to start buying the music again.' "

Even with his mixed emotions over the film, Chess said, "I love the fact that it's exposing this music. More people know more about it now than ever before."

He adds: "But it's still amazing there are two films about my family."

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