Who Do You Love B-
By Michael T. Dennis
The historical biopic, “Who Do You Love,” tells the story of Leonard Chess, founder of Chess Records in the 1940s during the emergence of Chicago blues. The film is an entertaining slice of music history that disappoints in its secondary capacity as a tale of a man torn between work and family.
Blues music, which has been called the only truly American art form, cropped up in the early 20th century in the Mississippi Delta region as black sharecroppers developed new ways to play the guitar and sing about their abundant woes.
With Southern agriculture in decline, a second generation of blues men migrated to Chicago in the 1940s, seeking work in the booming mid-western industrial center. It was there that big city music promoters with keen ears and big ambitions took blues into the clubs and, more importantly, the recording studios.
Soon Chicago blues records were national bestsellers, expanding the form to include complex musical arrangements and big bands. By the 1950s, white performers started playing the music, bringing along country and western influences. This was the heaven-sent combination that resulted in rock & roll.
“Who Do You Love” is concerned with the singular pre-rock moment. Based on a true story, but with plenty of fiction thrown in, it follows the rise of Jewish immigrant Leonard Chess (Alessandro Nivola). After struggling to entertain his young wife with late-night trips to black dance clubs, Leonard appeals to his brother Phil to sell the junkyard they inherited from their father and establish their own club.
Phil sees the idea as more of a nod to Leonard's passions that his business sensibilities. How will they make money from a club in a black neighborhood on the wrong side of the tracks, where white people fear to tread, Phil asks. Fuck 'em, is Lenoard's terse reply. “We don't need 'em.” (The producers of “Who Do You Love” should also get ready to do without a certain demographic, namely anyone who isn't already interested in blues music.)
Sensing his big brother's passion, Phil relents. Soon the Macomba is the hottest joint in town and Leonard is once again left looking for the next big thing. That turns out to be producing records for the performers who appear on-stage at his club. After a rocky start, Leonard stumbles onto the fledgling local blues scene with some help from his friend and mentor, songwriter Willie Dixon. They record the first album of a young guitarist named Muddy Waters, and the rest is history.
While the narrative of his career is engaging, “Who Do You Love” also throws in a plot about Leonard's difficulty balancing his ambition with his duties as a husband and father. It may be only an accident that this part of the film gets overshadowed by scenes in the recording studio or toe-tapping stage number, but if so it's a happy accident. Leonard's human side is far less interesting than his business, despite a very good performance by Alessandro Nivola.
Most of the situations are cliché, such as when Leonard decides at the last minute to accompany one of his bands on tour rather than joining the family for a fishing trip. Then there's the affair with fictional song writer Ivy Mills, whose drug habit unsurprisingly turns out to be bad for business, as well as for Leonard's marriage.
Leonard's personal life touches on a long list of popular themes without exploring any of them in depth. A suggestion near the end of the movie that everything Leonard has done was actually to please his wife is laughable, since nothing we've seen on-screen supports this idea in the slightest. There's also the tension between his safe, suburban existence and the exotic world of music, the clash between his strong personality and the artistic temperament of the musicians, and walking the line between good business decisions and racial prejudice.
Racism has its place in “Who Do You Love” but, like most good things in the movie, it comes through best in scenes about music. One especially nice tableau on the subject shows rowdy white teenagers kicking down the rope that divides a segregated dance floor; the metaphor about rock's crossover appeal is a bit obvious, but it's an economical way to cite the racism of the era and the winds of change that are beginning to blow.
Music would eventually play an important role in the Civil Rights movement, and throughout “Who Do You Love” the music takes center stage. A loud, guttural performance from Chess Records icon Bo Diddley opens and closes the film. Robert Randolph portrays Diddley and, along with David Oyelowo as Muddy Waters, sings all of his own songs, providing a raw, contemporary take on some American classics.
The preeminence of music is unsurprising, given director Jerrk Zaks's background as a Tony Award-winning broadway director. In “Who Do You Love” he handles spectacle well, but never manages to tell a heartfelt story. Instead the pieces of that story remain strewn throughout the film, giving it an unkempt appearance.
For anyone with a taste for the blues, the music will be more than enough to make watching “Who Do You Love” an enjoyable experience. Audiences looking for a meditation on the price of success, or unwilling to give in to the sheer joy of listening to the soundtrack, would be better off elsewhere.
Leonard Chess – Alessandro Nivola
Muddy Waters – David Oyelowo
Willie Dixon – Chi McBride
Phil Chess – John Abrahams
Ivy Mills – Megalyn Echikunwoke
Revetta – Marika Dominczyk
Bo Diddley – Robert Randolph
Alexander/ Mitchell Productions
Distributed by International Film Circuit
Directed by Jerry Zaks
Written by Peter Martin Wortmann and Robert Conte
Producers, Les Alexander, Gideon Amir, Andrea Baynes, Dennis A. Brown, Robert Conte, Jonathan Mitchell, Peter Martin Wortmann
Original Music, Jeff Beal
Cinematographer, David Franco
Editor, Scott Richter
Casting, Stacey Rosen
Production Designer, Carey Meyer
Art Director, Val Wilt
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