This is the second film to tackle the story of the founders of Chess Records in Chicago during the 1950s and 1960s. Cadillac Records (2008) was the first, and it focused more on the blues and rock 'n' roll music than this one does.
Leonard Chess (Alessandro Nivola) talks his brother (Jon Abrahams) into selling the family junkyard for a South Side nightclub, the Macomba. While the place does okay business, this ambitious Jewish-Polish immigrant is inspired to become a record producer. Singer/songwriter Willie Dixon (Chi McBride) opens many doors for him in the African-American music community. But it is sheer luck that signals a breakthrough for Chess Records when a Mississippi blues genius named Muddy Waters (David Oyelowo) auditions for them and blows their minds with his incredible guitar playing and songwriting abilities. He becomes the label's first star even though Leonard has to slip money to disc jockeys to get them to play his records.
When things go bad on the home front with his beautiful and lonely wife Revetta (Marika Dominczyk), Leonard begins an affair with Mills (Megalyn Echikunwoke), a drug addict and very self-destructive singer. Muddy Waters enjoys his celebrity status for quite a while but is threatened by the popularity of Bo Diddley (Robert Randolph), who becomes the new rising star on the Chess Records label.
There have been many musical showbiz biopictures over the years. This one settles down amicably in the middle between the duds and the triumphs. Alessandro Nivola is impressive as Leonard Chess, a man who loves music and taking risks that test his mettle. But the most endearing performance is Chi McBride's superb portrait of Willie Dixon, the real powerhouse behind the success of Chess Records.