Who Do You Love directed by Jerry Zaks. With Alessandro Nivola (Coco Avant Chanel, Junebug), Jon Abrahams (Meet The Parents), Robert Randolph (as Bo Diddley), Keb’ Mo’, Raheem DeVaughn, Ryan Shaw, David Oyelowo (Last King Of Scotland), Chi McBride (“Pushing Daisies,” “Boston Legal”), Megalyn Ann Echikunwoke and Marika Dominczyk.
Leonard Chess was born Lejzor Czyz in 1917, in a Jewish community that was then in Poland and is now part of Belarus. The family emigrated to Chicago when he was a little boy, and by the time Leonard was 30, he and his brother Phil had sold the family junkyard and invested in a riskier business - the Macomba, a nightclub on the city’s south side. Soon, of course, the brothers would start Chess Records, help popularize the blues, partially invent early rock 'n' roll and record some of the most iconic musicians of the day: Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Big Bill Broonzy, Etta James, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Johnny “Guitar” Watson and Koko Taylor.
That’s the story that director Jerry Zaks tells in the new film “Who Do You Love," and because Chess records had such a powerful effect on popular music, you want the movie to be powerful too - or at least fun. Sadly, it just isn’t.
"Who Do You Love" has its moments. There is wonderful acting by most of the cast, including the excellent David Oyelowo in a supporting role as Muddy Waters. The film has a stylized 1950s look that, while probably not historically spot-on, is kind of entrancing. And, of course, there is excellent music throughout (not enough of it, though).
This film is Jerry Zaks’ second foray into movie directing; his theatrical work has won him numerous awards including four Tonys. His first film, “Marvin’s Room” (1996), was critically lauded and won assorted kudos, including a Best Actress Oscar for Meryl Streep. However, since 1996 Zaks has directed quite a bit of TV, which might explain why “Who Do You Love” seems more like a beautifully staged TV movie than a film. Also, while the story focuses on issues of race (it’s about “race” music, after all), the makers of this film chose to deal with a layered topic in a remarkably facile way.
One example occurs when Leonard Chess, played by Nivola, goes on tour with Muddy Waters and his all-black band. The gang inevitably runs into trouble when they’re eating dinner at a thoroughly (and confusingly) integrated restaurant in the South. There’s an abortive brawl and the next day the redneck instigator of the previous night’s violence shows up at the show (along with the Sheriff, still in uniform, who Leonard had invited the night before).
But it’s not to fight! It turns out that the would-be fighter is actually a lover—of band member Little Walter’s harmonica stylings. He’s there to ask for advice about a technique he just can’t master on his own harp.
Overall, "Who Do You Love" is a rote story. Despite good performances, it pretty much hits all the predictable marks in a genre of film that explores the trail of a man who pursues his dreams at the expense of his personal life ... but makes something great in the process.
Who Do You Love screenings
April 9 - New York, Village East and City Cinemas
April 16 - Los Angeles, Laemmle Sunset 5, Laemmle Monica 4 (Santa Monica), Laemmle Pasadena Playhouse (Pasadena)