The story of Leonard Chess, the Jewish entrepreneur whose Chess Records label recorded some of the great blues records of the mid-20th century and built the bridge from blues to rock and roll, is a compelling one. I’m not sure it’s one that needed to be told twice. In one of those occasional instances of Hollywood parallel thinking, two feature biographies of Chess went into production in 2008: Cadillac Records, which hit theaters late that year, and Who Do You Love, which was presumably held back to avoid confusion. But as we’ve seen in these situations, the one that comes late to the party is usually compared unfavorably to the first, and that’s what happens here; Who Do You Love is the Infamous to Cadillac Records’ Capote.
Which is not to say it doesn’t have pleasures of its own, or that it gets some things right that its predecessor got wrong (the film closes with a proud proclamation of how many of the parties involved gave it their blessing). One of Cadillac’s more egregious modifications to the real story of Chess Records was the total exclusion of Phil Chess from the story; according to that picture, Leonard Chess did the whole thing alone. Who Do You Love mines the relationship between showy front man Leonard (Alessandro Nivola) and his quieter, kinder brother Phil (Jon Abrahams) effectively; Leonard got all the credit and Phil never complained (in which case, his exclusion from the earlier film must’ve really smarted), and the contrast between the two men is a nice addition.
The film opens with Alan Freed introducing a rockin’ Bo Diddley; Leonard watches and smiles from backstage, and the rest of the film is a flashback of his rise to success (Corny construction much?). We follow the Chess brothers from their childhood in Chicago in the 1930s, then up to the 40s as they go from salvage yard owners to nightclub men to record producers, redefining the sound of recorded blues with the help of songwriting genius Willie Dixon (Chi McBride) and immortal artists like Muddy Waters (David Oyelowo).
The primary difference between the two films structurally is that this one works on a smaller canvas; director Jerry Zaks (the Broadway and TV great whose previous film was 1996’s Marvin’s Room) is primarily making a Leonard Chess biopic, while Cadillac director Darnell Martin was interested not only in Chess, but in the complex relationships forged by Muddy Waters (played to the hilt by Jeffrey Wright)—particularly his brotherly bond with harmonica genius Little Walter and his rivalry with Howlin’ Wolf. Here, Walter is a minor, one-note presence, and Wolf is unseen and only mentioned in passing. Etta James doesn’t come off very well either; she’s fictionalized in this film as “Ivy Mills,” and let’s just say she comes to a very different ending. But it’s an odd choice, to have all of these other characters using the real names, but then there’s this thin beauty singing “At Last” and jonesing for smack who isn’t Etta James.
There are some amusing scenes scattered throughout the picture. Muddy’s audition is a great, grin-worthy sequence, and the business with Muddy’s band explaining their arrival routine (“There’s a hierarchy,” goes the refrain) is awfully funny. McBride is wonderful as Mr. Dixon, and makes a memorably early impression with an uproarious scene in which he proves unflappable in the face of a knife fight. But other scenes fall flat—the domestic drama with Leonard’s wife is dull as toast, and the vignette with a racist who becomes a fan is well-intentioned but too damned neat.
I didn’t plan to turn the entire review into a compare-and-contrast essay, but there you have it; this is what happens when two similar films are made this closely together. It’d be nice to approach it with a completely clear mind, but Who Do You Love exists in Cadillac Records’ echo chamber. The music is expectedly wonderful; it’s charming and more than a little old-fashioned (which I mean as a compliment). But when its 90 minutes come to an end, it boils down to a case of been there, done that.
"Who Do You Love" opens Friday, April 9 in limited release.