Music biopics have been hot—not to mention Oscar bait—in recent years with Taylor Hackford's Ray, James Mangold's Walk the Line and La Vie En Rose enchanting moviegoers and garnering scads of nominations and awards. Leonard Chess, record producer and founder of Chess Records, the label that introduced the world to Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, and Chuck Berry, among others, may seem like an unlikely subject for the biopic treatment. After all, he was a behind-the-scenes figure, not a star like Ray Charles, Johnny Cash or Edith Piaf. But he was also mercurial and charismatic, and a key figure in the rise of the blues and rock 'n' roll as popular music. Jerry Zaks' Who Do You Love, an engaging portrait of the man behind the artists, arrived at the Toronto International Film Festival sans distribution, a condition that doesn't look likely to last long. A distributor with marketing smarts ought to be able to parlay this tune-filled drama into at least a modest success and could even steer lead Alessandro Nivola into the stardom that has so far eluded him.
After establishing Leonard and his little brother Phil as Depression-hardened Chicago tykes who are already keyed into the urban rhythms of the Polish immigrants' adopted hometown, the pic quickly switches to the postwar era. Leonard and Phil (Jon Abrahams) have inherited their father's junkyard, a business that could sustain their families throughout their lives. But Leonard aspires to a more glamorous life, one that will incorporate his love of jazz and blues. His passion is infectious as he talks Phil into first opening a nightclub, the Macomba, and later into pouring the nightclub's profits into Chess Records.
That is the bare bones of Chess' story. Who Do You Love, written by Peter Wortmann and Bob Conte, is less about Chess’ life than it is about his mercurial personality and the music he pursues. In the movie's telling, Chess has tremendous charm, a foul mouth (a certain 12-letter schoolyard epithet peppering nearly every conversation), a disdain for the prevalent racism of the era and a love of music that is all consuming. But he is also relentlessly ambitious and so focused on the business that his wife, Ravetta (Marika Dominczyk), and young son, Marshall (Tendal Mann), are an afterthought. And he is so focused on the bottom line that he ends up engendering the (entirely justified) resentment and suspicion of the musicians he loves by the manner in which he determines their pay. Chess' personality is complicated and Nivola is terrific as he nails its many shadings and inconsistencies. The actor is naturally warm, but in those moments when Chess is at his most manipulative or baldly ambitious, Nivola dials the temperature down to ice cold.
Without the music, there is no reason to tell Leonard Chess' story, and Zak does not stint on that score. Guitarist/vocalist Robert Randolph set's the film's high energy level when he opens the movie in the guise of Bo Diddley with a smoking rendition of Who Do You Love. Chi McBride, late of TV's Pushing Daisies, plays bassist, songwriter and producer Willie Dixon, whose work is instrumental in turning Chess Records into a success. David Oyelowo is McKinley Morganfield a.k.a. Muddy Waters, the Mississippi-born bluesman who becomes Chess' first big star. Guitarist/singer Keb' Mo' appears in a small part as guitarist Jimmy Rogers, but he makes a huge contribution behind the scenes. It his guitar, not the real Muddy Waters on the film's glorious soundtrack, and his vocal subbing both Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon.
Zaks puts as much care in Who Do You Love's overall look as he does into the performances of the music. The clothes, the cars, the smoky interior of the Macomba effortlessly evoke the era, as does the clothesline hung across the dance floor in a Southern hall to separate the races. There are moments that don't ring quite true, as when a redneck racist who previously tussled with Muddy's band has a change of heart after watching them play, approaching harmonica harmonic player Little Walter (Miko Defoor) for instruction. For the most part, though, Who Do You Love does a marvelous job of recreating the times and the music and, most of all, of bringing to life this behind-the-scenes giant of the music business.
Distributor: International Film Circuit
Cast: Alessandro Nivola, Jon Abrahams, Chi McBride, David Oyelowo, Keb'Mo' and Robert Randolph
Director: Jerry Zaks
Screenwriters: Peter Wortmann, Bob Conte
Producers: Les Alexander, Andrea Baynes and Jonathan Mitchell
Running time: 90 min.
Release date: April 9 NY, April 16 LA, April 20 Chi