“Who Do you Love” is, after “Cadillac Records,” the second movie biography centered on the legendary Chess Records in Chicago, and it suffers by comparison. “Cadillac Records” had an incendiary performance from Jeffrey Wright as Muddy Waters, and a surprisingly powerful one from Beyoncé as Etta James (by far her best movie work to date).
In this new rendition, unevenly directed by the Tony-winning Broadway director Jerry Zaks, the performances in these two roles, by David Oyelowo and Megalyn Echikunwoke respectively, are still good, but they are surrounded by a pumped-up romanticism that is much more Hollywood and Vine than the South Side of Chicago.
Leonard Chess (Alessandro Nivola) and his younger brother Phil (Jon Abrahams) were Polish boyhood immigrants who sold the junkyard they inherited and parlayed it into a nightclub and then a record label featuring not only Waters and James (called Ivy Mills here) but also Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry and many others. The label is a seminal part of music history, and “Who Do You Love” never lets you forget it. Too bad the original recordings of these great artists were not utilized. Like so much about this film, its soundtrack is a prime example of ersatz authenticity.
As Leonard, Nivola isn’t bad, which is good, since the entire movie revolves around him. (Brother Phil is barely in the picture, and he was left out of “Cadillac Records” entirely. I guess filmmakers just don’t love Phil.) But Leonard’s domineering, philandering ways, to the expense of all else, are the film’s focus. We never get a real sense of what this music means to him, or what it might have felt to be, inadvertently or otherwise, a progenitor of rock ’n’ roll. In the end, the most striking thing about Leonard is that he never seems to stop smoking. Grade: B-
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