Because the Leonard Chess biopic Who Do You Love was shelved for more than a year to steer clear of the rival project Cadillac Records, the movie can’t help but feel like an also-ran. And it doesn’t help that Who Do You Love director Jerry Zaks and screenwriters Peter Martin Wortmann and Robert Conte crib so many of their moves from the well-thumbed biopic playbook. We see young Polish immigrant brothers Leonard and Phil Chess learn how to say “motherfucker” from a Chicago street musician. We see one of Chess Records’ biggest superstars introduced with a casual, “Friends call me Muddy… Muddy Waters.” We see a racist redneck overcome his prejudice with the help of a Little Walter harmonica solo. We see Leonard explain his obsession with “race music” to his wife by shouting “It makes me feel.” In short: we see the Chess Records story simplified and telegraphed.
But at least the cast doesn’t act as though they’re mired in the biopic muck. Chi McBride is typically lively as Chess’ pragmatic mentor Willie Dixon, while Alessandro Nivola gives a rangy performance as Leonard Chess, conjuring up the man’s burning passion for the music his label produced and his ruthlessness as a businessman. (In the movie, one of Leonard’s big negotiating tricks is to get his acts to set their own pay-rates, knowing they’ll undervalue themselves.) Though Who Do You Love only pays lip service to the Chess brothers’ exploitation of their artists, and though a lack of full participation from the Chess stable means that Etta James gets re-imagined as a smacked-up troublemaker named “Ivy Mills,” the movie does succeed at showing how Chess Records popularized the urban form of blues that evolved into rock ’n’ roll. Who Do You Love works best when it isn’t about freezing time and explaining moments in pop-music history, but is instead about guys playing music together, enjoying the camaraderie and fuck-everything rowdiness of the sounds they were making.