Who Do You Love Directed by: Jerry Zaks
Starring: Alessandro Nivola, John Abrahams, David Oyelowo, Chi McBride, Megalyn Ann Echikunwoke, Marika Dominczyk, Keb’ Mo’
Alexander/ Mitchell Productions
Release Date: April 9, 2010 (Limited)
“The Blues Had A Baby And They Named It Rock And Roll” — Muddy Waters
There is a name in music that many have forgotten over the years. This name is responsible for the discovery of some of the greatest musical talents this world has ever known. This name is responsible for the discovery of Rock and Roll itself. That name is Leonard Chess.
Who Do You Love is a biopic about Leonard Chess (Alessandro Nivola), who as a Jewish immigrant in Chicago realized that there was a new sound in music and that no one had jumped on it yet. He first opened up a new nightclub where musicians could play, but it was not long before he and his brother Phil Chess (John Abrahams) along with the help of songwriter Willie Dixon (Chi McBride) decided they needed to record this music and share it with the world.
Difficulties were plenty along the way, as you would naturally expect, but when it was all said and done, Chess was the name behind legends and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees like Waters (David Oyelowo), Dixon, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Etta James, Little Walter, and Buddy Guy, among others. They brought the Blues to the masses, and when talents like Diddley and Berry came along, they helped to create Rock and Roll, which just happens to be one of the most popular music genres on the planet to this day.
Who Do You Love is a fairly simple little movie. There’s not a ton of layers or complexities, it’s just the story of a Jewish immigrant with nothing who heard a sound he knew was something special, and he did what it took to get it to people’s ears. If Chess had to slip a little extra money to a radio station DJ to air his music, he did it. If he had to rush out any time of day or night to deal with something involving his talents, he went. If buying his artists a new car ensured they stayed happy, he made it happen. The man was dedicated to this music, and the legends he helped to create speak for themselves.
Things weren’t always smiles and sunshine, though. When you’re the shepherd of a flock of talents who are all in their own worlds, you’re constantly trying to maintain order and this was tough. Nivola does a great job as Chess, playing out his business senses, his laid back times, and his temper when things weren’t working as they should be.
The rest of the cast does a great job as well. Abrahams as the Chess brother who remains a little bit more grounded and behind the curtain is solid, all of the musicians offer strong performances, and my own personal favorite, Chi McBride, is wonderful as Willie Dixon…as Chi tends to do from time to time.
One reason that stands out for you to watch this movie, even if you’ve found no other reason to do so, is the music. There’s a lot of great music that came out of Chess Records, clearly, and you get your fill of it here. Watching Who Do You Love reminds you of how incredible it was in the world of music once upon a time. You saw the list above, you saw who’s in the Hall of Fame just from Chess Records. How many musicians starting today can you think of that will deservedly reach that destination? It may be cliche, but they just don’t make them like they used to make them anymore, and this is a reminder of an art form that has diluted over the years.
One thing that does need to be touched on is another movie called Cadillac Records. Both of these movies are basically the same story, but told in different ways. I actually made an effort to see both films before reviewing this movie just in case it was necessary to discussion. It is not. The family of Leonard Chess, including his brother and son (who are both in the film), completely supported Who Do You Love with the information that they needed. Cadillac focused more on Leonard and Muddy. I assume that this means Who Do You Love is probably more accurate, but it doesn’t much matter to be honest. If you’re thinking about choosing one over the other, don’t; both films tell an important story, have a lot of great music, and should be checked out. The only thing that really matters is that people remember Chess Records and the history-changing impact that they had on music.
The only glaring question I had while watching this movie is the exclusion of Etta James. She was a major part in the aforementioned Cadillac Records, but in this film, she was portrayed in the Ivy Mills role. I’m not sure if Miss James gave permission to only one film or what the details are, but as soon as you hear “At Last,” you know who you’re dealing with, no matter the character name or actress in question.
If you love music, its history, roots, the history of our country, and all that good stuff, you should very much enjoy Who Do You Love. It’s a look into our past, a look at a simpler time when people didn’t have all this crazy interweb stuff to entertain them, and the color of your skin decided where you could eat and where you stood in society. But even in these tough times, there was music, and it united people of all colors and backgrounds in a way that not many other things could unite us, and for that, it should be eternally celebrated.