Production crews film Chess using New Orleans musicians. Since Hollywood representatives began arriving in New Orleans en masse to take advantage of the tax credits Louisiana offers as incentives to film movies and television shows within the state, much thought has been devoted to getting local musicians tapped into the revenue stream. Similar tax credits for recording music in Louisiana have been passed by the Legislature. Most recently, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation's Sync Up initiative tried to leverage Jazz Fest to connect local musicians with the film industry.
Trumpeter Jamil Sharif has an excellent New Orleans music resume. A NOCCA grad and student of the late Alvin Batiste at Southern University, Sharif has played as a featured soloist with the Louisiana Philharmonic orchestra, and he gigs five nights a week at the Maison Bourbon in the French Quarter. His compositions have been placed in several projects filmed in and around the city, including the TV series The Big Easy and Nicholas Cage's 2004 film Sonny. In recent years, Sharif happened upon a new gig in the growing Louisiana film industry. He has been the music coordinator for movies like 2004's Ray and currently, the Leonard Chess biopic Chess, which wrapped filming in New Orleans last week. He hired and organized the Louisiana musicians who play Chicago musicians in the film.
For Chess, the meatier musical roles are played by nonLouisiana talent, some musicians, some not. Sacred steel star Robert Randolph plays Bo Diddley, actor Chi McBride plays Delta bluesman Willie Dixon. For Ray, Sharif only cast one band. In Chess, there are dozens of scenes with live bands, and nearly every one is a Louisiana artist that Sharif cast. Bassists Roland Guerin and David Pulphus, guitarist Warren Batiste, drummer Herman LeBeau and horn player Allen Dejean all make appearances.
Chess is actually one of two films about the record mogul that have been in production in Louisiana recently. Cadillac Records filmed in Mississippi and in Baton Rouge and wrapped up local production a few weeks ago. Its star power is heavier hitting, with Beyonce Knowles playing Etta James, Adrien Brody as Leonard Chess and Cedric the Entertainer as Willie Dixon. To counter, Chess has Chess records scion Marshall Chess (son of Leonard, and briefly president of the label in the late '60s) on board as consultant. Although music supervisor Budd Carr was unable to comment on media buys for Chess before the film wraps, the set publicist suggested that Chess had been able to license several recordings from the Chess catalog for use in the film. According to advance press and Internet buzz, the word is that Chess' narrative will focus more deeply on Leonard Chess, and Cadillac Records will take a broader look at the label's roster of artists.
According to Sharif, putting together a band to play a band has different pitfalls than putting together a band just to play. Certainly, local bands often wind up playing themselves in the various film and TV projects being shot locally, providing background music and New Orleans color in club scenes. But with films for which the focus is music like Ray and Chess things are different, and Sharif is both bandleader and casting director.
"If it's a period film, they have to look right," Sharif says. "And they have to match up in age. But it's not just the look. If you want it to be believable on film, they do have to look like a band."
Sharif wants the group to have a certain level of comfort with the songs and with each other to look credible. Also, the visual playing has to match a prerecorded track that'll be used in the film, and often, the instruments the band is playing will be muffled for shooting.
"Even though the music is already prerecorded, [when filming] some of it is live. Everything has to be in sync, everything has to be just so." And it has to look natural. Personalities come into play. The guy who's always late for a gig, or argumentative, or drinks too much, doesn't get the call, Sharif says. Players who are used to rolling in at 9 p.m. and hitting the stage at 9:30 need to show up for crack-of-dawn-makeup calls and sometimes hang around for hours before they're needed. It's a whole new side of the local music business.