You'd think the movie industry would create some kind of idea clearinghouse so that filmmakers didn't wind up duplicating each other's efforts, whether it's two versions of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, two films about Steve Prefontaine, two movies about Truman Capote writing In Cold Blood -- or two movies about the rise of blues mogul Leonard Chess.
Darnell Martin's Cadillac Records and Jerry Zaks' Who Do You Love were both made about the same time -- but Cadillac Records made it into theaters in 2008. Now here comes Zaks' film, which is, in most respects, a different story -- though with more laughs than Martin's.
Where Cadillac Records focused on Muddy Waters and his relationship with Leonard Chess, Who Do You Love is Chess' story -- from his days as an immigrant Chicago junk dealer to his stints running a blues bar in the city -- to his expansion into recording the acts that played at his bars.
In Zaks' Who Do You Love, Chess (Alessandro Nivola) and his brother Phil (Jon Abrahams start out as sons of an immigrant scrap dealer who inherit the business from their father. But Leonard wants more -- and something more glamorous than the scrap business.
So he and Phil take a flyer on a bar, which they turn into a success, booking blues and r'n'b acts, while Leonard becomes friends with local session man and blues legend Willie Dixon (Chi McBride). Before long, Leonard has the idea of producing records, hoping to strike it rich by featuring the acts from his joint.
His first efforts flop -- but he hits the bullseye with a record by Muddy Waters (David Oyelowo). He creates Chess Records and gradually expands his roster until it includes Howlin' Wolf, Bo Diddley, Little Walter, Chuck Berry and a female blues singer named Ivy Mills (a stand-in for Chess' real-life star, Etta James).
Chess is a paternal figure, but also a businessman, playing fast and loose with contracts and royalties. He serves as both manager of and recording company for many of his musicians, a conflict of interest that gradually takes its toll on his relationships with his artists. Ultimately, to him, it's about the business. As much as he loves the music and the people who make it, his first concern is the bank account of Leonard Chess.
Nivola plays Chess as a fast-talking charmer with a quick temper and a willingness to scrap, when necessary -- a tough Jew in an era when anti-Semitism was still as much an unvarnished reality as Jim Crow laws for African-Americans. Nivola shows us why his artists believed in Chess - but he isn't afraid to make him unlikable, when Leonard's look turns cold and calculating.
He and McBride, as the larger-than-life Willie Dixon, have terrific comic chemistry, a great give-and-take style that draws upon McBride's wonderfully measured timing. Oyelowo has an electricity as Waters, though he's not given much to work with dramatically.
Indeed, the script by Peter Wortmann and Robert Conte is rarely subtle and always a bit reductive in its story-telling. But Zaks finds the life in every scene, even the more clichéd ones. And thanks to a juicy performance by Nivola, Who Do You Love still feels like a celebration of a seminal musical moment, for all its flaws.
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