Before the Rolling Stones, before Eric Clapton and long before Beyonce, there was Leonard Chess: A Jewish man from Chicago with big dreams, no fear and impeccable taste in music.
Music is the driving force behind Who Do You Love, a new Chess biopic in which good songs solve everything from money woes to infidelity and racism to poor parenting. The film, which opens in limited release Friday, traces Chess’ rise from his roots as the son of poor immigrant parents to his legacy as co-founder of Chess Records. The label, which Chess launched with his brother Phil, brought blues to the masses in the 1950s and ‘60s and paved the way for modern rock ’n’ roll. Starting out with a small club in one of Chicago’s African-American neighborhoods and under the tutelage of Willie Dixon, Leonard and Phil went on to discover legends like Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley (Love is named for his eponymous, 1956 hit). The combined efforts of Dixon and the Chess brothers not only changed American music, but heralded a new era in American culture, and beyond.
Who Do You Love arrives in the wake of 2008’s Cadillac Records, which covered the same story with a grittier lens and name-brand stars. Love director Jerry Zaks’ version features lesser-known but capable actors who are hindered by a disjointed script and a directing style that keeps the story at arm’s length, no matter how grisly (a heroin overdose!) or raw (illicit sex!) the scene or subject material. The elegant, attractive Alessandro Nivola plays Leonard with cool detachment, playing off the more jovial Phil (Jon Abrahams) with believable ease.
The story’s nuances, however, are largely glossed over, with pesky issues like marital strife feeling more like a short-lived spat than glacial estrangement. As Leonard chooses a road trip with his artists over fishing with his son (Tendal Mann) and a talented vixen over his ravishing wife Revetta (Marika Dominczyk), any signs of inner turmoil are tough to discern. He rolls up to Revetta’s a few times, waiting in vain for her forgiveness. There are no apologies, no meaningful looks. Ultimately, all it takes is a shiny Cadillac, an ill-fated lover and a Muddy Waters song to make it all better.
Racial tension is similarly glossed over. At Chess’ heyday, the ink was barely dry on landmark desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education. Yet in his biopic, an interracial bar fight is forgotten with a little jam sesh on the harmonica. Chess’ dubious business ethics, meanwhile — which have been the subject of longtime debate — get a few meaningful lines, minus evident consequence or personal impact. Nivola’s brief, quiet moments may be trying to suggest deep guilt or self-doubt. But Who Do You Love doesn’t give him — or anyone else — a chance to dig in to their characters and inhabit them as real people. Instead, it rushes from beat to beat, covering a lot of territory but barely pausing to let it sink in.
Opening with an unseen crowd clapping in anticipation, the film begins with the same device that promised energy, humanity and soul in the 2005 Johnny Cash biopic, Walk the Line. Like that movie, Love features fantastic music, some chuckle-worthy moments and a fascinating story. Yet despite the hyped-up opening and super-catchy songs, Love never quite delivers its promise, serving more as a polished, uneven tale about the past than a tangible story about a living, breathing person driven by passion and ego. By barely scratching the surface, Who Do You Love not only shortchanges the audience, but also Chess’ important legacy.