What with films based on the lives of Marvin Gaye, Lena Horne and Etta James nearing production, I’m encouraged that the true story of American music in the 20th century is finally going to get told. It might be in a piecemeal fashion, but at least audiences are going to get a better sense of the artists who recorded some of the most memorable songs in our country’s history.
And key to understanding that history is telling the story of the record labels that discovered, nurtured and, in many cases, exploited these artists. So I’m not surprised to learn that there are competing projects about Leonard Chess, whose Chess Records brought the legendary likes of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Chuck Berry and many others to national prominence (as much as they could with unreliable radio rotation). According to MTV Movies, Alessandro Nivola has been cast as the influential producer/executive in an as-yet-unnamed biopic that won’t shy away from Chess’s more questionable practices (e.g. denying many of his artists their fair share of royalties). I haven’t seen a whole lot of documentary footage on Chess, but Nivola is pretty versatile actor; even if he’s not a spitting image of Chess, I’m sure he’ll give an interesting performance.
The other Chess film is Darnell Martin’s Cadillac Records, which sounds like it’ll concentrate more on the artists’ story (with Jeffrey Wright as Muddy Waters, so it has a very high likelihood of being awesome). Sometimes these competing projects suffer from redundancy; perhaps these two will actually complement each other.