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dir-scr Darnell Martin
with Adrien Brody, Jeffrey Wright, Beyoncé Knowles, Mos Def, Gabrielle Union, Cedric the Entertainer, Columbus Short, Eamonn Walker, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Eric Bogosian, Tammy Blanchard, Norman Reedus
release US 5.Dec.08, UK 20.Feb.09
08/US Sony 1h49
At last: Brody and Knowles
|R E V I E W B Y R I C H C L I N E|
Energetic performances and a strong true story lift this rather simplistic movie into something watchable. But if the filmmaking is somewhat flat, at least the characters aren't. And the music is fantastic.
In the mid-1940s, Leonard Chess (Brody) and Muddy Waters (Wright) made a very odd couple: a white entrepreneur and a black musician collaborating to merge musical styles. And Chess Records caught on, developing a range of talent from the loose-cannon Little Walter (Short) and the genre-busting Chuck Berry (Def) to the troubled-but-talented Etta James (Knowles), celebrating every success with the gift of a new Cadillac. But growing fame is double-edged, as white artists like the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones have hits with Chess artists' songs.
Writer-director Martin keeps the tone lively, playing on the characters' strong personalities as they team up and fall out with each other. The dialog is full of humour and attitude, while the big racial issues are allowed to gurgle loudly under the surface for the most part. So it's frustrating that the film isn't more artistically ambitious, settling for a slick, simplistic approach that leaves much of the emotion feeling superficial as the narrative leaps through time, condensing events and confusing the chronology.
And it also falls back on typical movie biopic chestnuts (alcohol, sex, drugs, guns), rather than letting the relationship dramas or artistic achievements take centre stage. And that's a shame, since the characters are so strong. Brody is good as Chess, although he's the least interesting person in the film. Much more compelling is Wright's deeply conflicted Waters. While Short is effectively off the rails as the young Walter; and Union, Chriqui and Blanchard add spice to their side roles.
And then there are Def and Knowles, who tear up the screen whenever they appear; both have infectious spark and raw talent to spare, and are barely contained within the limits of this film. It's in their scenes that we get a glimpse of how truly vital Chess Records was in the musical history of the 20th century. And by gently including civil rights issues and events along the way, the film tells an important story that both catches our imagination and leaves us thinking.
|R E A D E R R E V I E W S|
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© 2009 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall|
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