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Competing films tell Chess Records story

'Cadillac,' 'Love' focus on different players

When Andy Lack was a teenager living in New York, he would sneak into Harlem with his older brother to catch concerts by Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley or Muddy Waters at the Apollo Theater.

So when the veteran TV exec joined Sony Music five years ago, he started a film unit as part of a move to use the talents of the music conglom’s artists in other media. The first film he wanted to make was the Chess Records story.

“I have wanted to make this film most of my adult life,” says Lack, who along with Sofia Sondervan, is one of the producers on “Cadillac Records,” the Sony film boasting Beyonce as Etta James and Mos Def as Chuck Berry. Oscar winner Adrien Brody plays Leonard Chess, the legendary co-founder of the ’50s-era blues powerhouse label.

Lack, who now works at Bloomberg, says he long wanted Beyonce for the role of James and Usher for Chuck Berry. “But Usher’s schedule couldn’t work, so we got Mos Def, and he does a terrific job.”

Though the producers have cast many of the artists on their wish list, landing all the hit songs

of the era has proved a bit harder.

“We didn’t get all the material we wanted,” says “Cadillac Records” music producer Steve Jordan. “For a long time, we had to fight to get just 60 seconds of ‘Maybelline,’ ” referring to the Chuck Berry classic. “I was on the phone with Chuck for months trying to convince him to let us use the song. You couldn’t substitute that song in the film, so we couldn’t give up trying to get that song. We couldn’t tell the story without it,” recalls Jordan, who worked closely with Berry on the biopic “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll.”

Berry may have relented on “Maybelline.” But Jordan also wanted to use Berry’s nugget “Sweet Little Sixteen.”

Unfortunately for Jordan, he was unable to convince Berry to clear the song. “We just couldn’t close that deal,” Jordan recalls. “We didn’t have the kind of money he wanted.”

Licensing classic songs from big-name artists can often be an expensive undertaking, with some songs fetching as much as $200,000 for use in a pivotal scene in a film. Songs featured during the end credits can approach $140,000, while shorter, less prominent uses can run $25,000-$45,000. A producer’s must-have list of songs — along with a film’s score — can push a music budget into the millions.

And a song such as James’ signature tune “At Last” — which is performed by Beyonce in the “Cadillac Records” pic — is typically at the higher-end of the licensing scale.

While “Cadillac Records” tackles the rise of James and Berry, the parallel feature “Who Do You Love” comes at the tale by more closely showing the relationship between label co-founders and brothers Leonard and Phil, played by Alessandro Nivola and Jon Abrahams, respectively, and how the duo developed the label. (“Cadillac Records” omits Phil from its story while “Who Do You Love” omits James and Berry).

Budd Carr, exec music producer for “Who Do You Love,” recalls having breakfast with Willie Dixon’s widow, Marie, in an effort to help smooth the way to clear the rights to the blues legend’s musical legacy.

“We had a lovely conversation where I explained how the music would be used, and how Willie would be portrayed,” Carr recalls. “We went to many of the estates that way.”

But Carr was unable to clear any Berry tunes, and as a result Berry doesn’t appear in the film. “Chuck was originally in the script, but we made a proposal to him and he said no,” says Carr. Adds “Who Do You Love” producer Les Alexander: “We made him a very, very generous offer and he said no. So we changed the script.”

In some cases, determining who owns the older songs can be like a treasure hunt.

The “Who Do You Love” script called for “Minute Hour Blues,” a track that was performed by the Five Breezes, Willie Dixon’s original band. “It took us two months to find somebody to license it to us,” Carr recalls. “We learned Universal owned it, and they didn’t know it.” Carr says he gave a copy of the recording to Mrs. Dixon because she didn’t have one.

The film also boasts classic Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley tracks, including the latter’s “Who Do You Love,” which opens and closes the pic.

“At the (actual) performance, Chuck joined Bo onstage at the Paramount,” says Carr. “Would we have loved to re-create that big moment at the end of the film had Chuck let us use him? Yes. But (actor) Robert Randolph nails Bo, and the song sums up Leonard’s life, and whom he loves: his wife, his son, his job, the music. It works perfectly — even without Chuck.”

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