Film Review: Who Do You Love

Well-made, terrifically acted biopic about the Chicago Chess Brothers and their legendary Chess label and artists who propelled blues into a new genre called rock ’n’ roll. A cornucopia of great music, though some cinematic notes are off-key.

The second feature film effort from theatrical director Jerry Zaks after a long lapse (the so-so Marvin’s Room was his film bow), Who Do You Love is a satisfying, nicely crafted fact-based riff on pop-music history with a number of tweaks. In its tale of how Chicago’s Chess Brothers—older brother Leonard especially—changed music history, the film, boasting such classics as Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love” and the far mellower “At Last,” deserves the attention of contemporary-music fans.

The film is bookended by a leap forward to a 1955 Alan Freed concert in Brooklyn, where Bo Diddley (Robert Randolph) and band, performing the eponymous hit, establish that the Chess artists are not just successes but are forging a new era in music. Or as Muddy Waters is quoted at the end: “And the blues just had a baby and they named it rock ’n’ roll.”

The body of the film unfolds chronologically, beginning in the late ’40s when Leonard (Alessandro Nivola) and younger brother Phil (Jon Abrahams), the sons of Polish-Jewish immigrants in Chicago, decide to leave the family junkyard business and open a club for the blues music they love.

The club is soon a success as it draws a loyal black clientele. And “the Brothers Chess” win over talented artists like Willie Dixon (Chi McBride), who also serves as Leonard’s mentor and guide. Leonard, far more driven and ambitious than Phil, takes the reins (and their savings) to begin recording his artists.

As Leonard listens and signs (and, in his signature crafty way of jotting unseen numbers on small pieces of paper, reaches monetary agreements with wannabe musicians), Chess Records grows. The lesson learned is that people must be inspired to dance to the music.

Inevitably as happens in the music business, there are hits and misses, both on the professional and personal front. Leonard’s chance meeting with guitar player/singer Muddy Waters (David Oyelowo), newly arrived in Chicago from the Mississippi Delta and so poor he has no guitar, gives a big boost to the label.

But beautiful blues singer Ivy (Megalyn Echikunwoke), a fictional amalgam of the many black singers associated with Chess and ones the real Leonard had affairs with, brings trouble. Leonard begins an affair with Ivy, who eventually has a fatal overdose. Leonard decides to forego a family vacation to travel with his band on the road, where he learns that illegally paying off a radio DJ to play his records really does pay off and a hit is born. But on the homefront, Leonard’s beloved wife Revetta (Marika Dominczyk) and son move out of the family home. As Chess Records and blues gain traction, so does a reconciliation of Leonard with his family.

No number one with a bullet, the film falls short on a few counts. “Location, location, location” may be the mantra of real estate, but here the film’s Louisiana locations are a curse. Geography, like music, evokes atmosphere and the sun-drenched, warm climes of the South on view in Who Do You Love clash with what we want (rightly or not) as a blue/grey, chilly, smoky late-’40s/early-’50s Chicago cookin’ with blues.

Some story lapses nettle, like the nanosecond leap of an impoverished, illiterate Muddy Waters into a brash, cocky success. And why the filmmakers’ diffidence in conveying Ivy as a hopeless drug addict? And although Chuck Berry—synonymous with Chess—only got to the label in 1955, his absence here is regrettable. And, small point, why don’t the film’s Brothers Chess speak with more of that inimitable Chicago accent and its “A”s as broad as Lake Michigan?

Otherwise, the acting, like the soundtrack (also including “Hoochie Coochie Man” and other classics), soars and the musical performances rock. Nivola and McBride are among the standouts, but it’s British actor Oyelowo as Muddy who amazes.