From the opening scenes of this docudrama about history of Chess Records, things feel a little off. The attempt to balance the stories of Leonard Chess and Muddy Waters feels a little wonky and the pacing definitely seems off. A man just walks up to Muddy in a field and says he’s Alan Lomax and they record and then the movie starts. You have a sense that they don’t really know how to tell this story without just relying on historical signifiers.
SPOILERS because this supposedly “based on a true story” film invents shit, and maybe you don’t want the fake stuff spoiled for you.
Things get worse pretty soon after as incidents begin to happen which don’t seem to have any historical basis.
And then Little Walter shoots somebody. Seriously.
I can find nothing to suggest this incident is real. And at this point, you can’t trust this movie any more, especially with anything around Little Walter, whose personal life appears to be nearly a complete fabrication.
- Did Little Walter drive a car into Chess studios? Who knows!
- Did Leonard Chess buy Etta James a restaurant? Who knows!
- Did Chess and James have an affair? Who knows!
- Did Chess get beaten up by black nationalists? Who knows!
And, really, who cares, as long as some key historical moments are dramatized!
I should also note that Phil Chess is barely in this movie.
I understand that we all tell stories and history is a story. But I’m not sure a docudrama about a record label is the place to make the point that narratives are constructed. (And if that is really the point they’re trying to make, and I highly doubt it, they don’t really bring it up ever.)
In addition to the sheer fabrication of the personal lives of the historical figures portrayed, there are also some too-cute historical moments where famous people meet famous people or make observations, and you just entirely doubt the authenticity of those things. And it’s not just because of the bull shit personal lives, but because the film just doesn’t know how to handle them. For example, Chuck Berry is arrested for “white slavery” while he learns that the Beach Boys stole his song. Is that really how it happened? Really???
I will say that the acting is pretty good and the sense of place is pretty expertly created. But it’s hard to be particularly positive about either of those things when the film itself is so damn fake.
4/10 feels charitable