Who Do You Love -- Film Review
"Who Do You Love" is the second recent film to tell the story of Chess Records and its role in popularizing Southern-flavored blues and later acting as midwife to rock 'n' roll and R&B. And yet, after two films, nobody has really figured out the story's central figure, the enigmatic Leonard Chess. Both films had handicaps. "Cadillac Records," released in 2008, didn't have access to the man's papers or family since his family backed this film. But then, when your protagonist's son is on board as a consultant, you tip-toe lightly over a minefield of unsettled relationships between this Jewish-Polish immigrant and his African-American employees.
Even so, audiences come to such pictures for the music. Here there is an even greater distinction between the films. "Cadillac Records," produced by Sony Music Film, turned the biopic into a terrific jam session headlined by one of its executive producers, Beyonce. "Who Do You Love," directed by Broadway veteran Jerry Zaks, pays attention to the music but to its credit pays even more attention to the actors and story.
Audiences undoubtedly prefer the former approach. "Cadillac Records" grossed a modest $8.1 million domestically. "Who Do You Love" which lacks the star power of the previous effort, will do a fraction of that business.
"Who Do You Love" -- the title comes from a Bo Diddley song -- takes the Chess Records story only to the point that blues gives birth to rock 'n' roll. Peter Wortmann and Bob Conte's screenplay picks things up where Leonard Chess (Alessandro Nivola) takes a mercantile shine to the music he hears in Chicago night clubs in the early '50s. He talks brother Phil (Jon Abrahams) into selling the family junkyard and opening a South Side nightclub. (At least this film acknowledges Leonard had a brother. He didn't exist in "Cadillac Records.")
The Macomba club leads to the decision to gamble on so-called "race records." With bass player/songwriter Willie Dixon (Chi McBride) as his guide, Leonard meets the remarkable, Delta-born slide guitarist Muddy Waters (David Oyelowo), the label's first star.
Leonard's total obsession with business causes tensions at home with his wife Revetta (Marika Dominczyk) although his son Marshall (Tendal Jaret Mann) -- remember, he's a consultant here -- continues to worship his dad. Leonard's alleged affairs with female artists get summed up with a fictional character named Ivy Mills (a sultry Megalyn Echikunwoke).
Ivy most resembles Etta James other than the fact the real-life singer fortunately survived her struggles with drug addiction. Echikunwoke even delivers a torrid version of James' signature hit, "At Last."
The whole area of Leonard's questionable bookkeeping is fudged here. The Chess brothers made money, and lots of it, while his artists got low pay and a few expensive gifts. The film doesn't completely ignore this, but can never decide just how badly Leonard exploits his artists.
Nivola's Leonard is thoroughly likable but without any darker complexity. McBride is fine as the white man's mentor and facilitator in the black music community while Oyelowo and Robert Randolph are convincing as Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley respectively.
All period details and, of course, the music remain scrupulously authentic. The characters feel slightly less so.
Opens: April 9 New York (International Film Circuit)
Production companies: Alexander/Mitchell Productions
Cast: Alessandro Nivola, Jon Abrahams, Robert Randolph, Keb' Mo', David Oyelowo, Chi McBride, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Marika Dominczyk
Director: Jerry Zaks
Screenwriters: Peter Wortmann, Bob Conte
Producers: Les Alexander, Andrea Baynes, Jonathan Mitchell
Executive producers: Gideon Amir, Dennis Brown
Director of photography: David Franco
Production designer: Carey Meyer
Music: Jeff Beal
Costume designer: Christine Peters
Editors: Scott Richter, Anthony Redman
No MPAA rating, running time 90 minutes