Toronto: Breezily-entertaining, this jazz-fuelled biopic may still face a commercial struggle, says Jan Stuart.
Dir. Jerry Zaks. US. 2008. 90 minutes
A breezily-entertaining dramatisation of the life of blues entrepreneur Leonard Chess (Nivola), Who Do You Lovewill test the public’s appetite for recording studio soap operas. While it avoids as many genre traps as it steps into, this delves into the longstanding relationship between Jewish pop-music entrepreneurs and African-American musicians, which may be too specific a subject for it to travel well internationally. Even domestically, where the recent passing of R&B producer Jerry Wexler has generated media attention, Who Do You Love may have an uphill battle conquering bio-pic fatigue and its lack of name cast, despite a charismatic lead performance, punchy script work and seductive soundtrack.
As Leonard Chess, Nivola is a potty-mouthed toughie with the business acumen and fearlessness of a Meyer Lansky. The analogy to that infamous mobster is made by Chess’ own brother and partner Phil (Abrahams), who invariably defers to Leonard’s ambitions as they rise from their Chicago junkyard origins to open a hopping blues club for black patrons in 1947.
Abetted by canny musical instincts, a sceptical Phil and the club’s good-humoured bassist Willie Dixon (McBride), Chess makes a leap into recording, forging a distinct blues personality with the signing of the then-unknown singing guitarist Muddy Waters (Oyelowo). Chess has an empathetic rapport with his growing list of clients (which would grow to include Bo Biddley and Little Walter) that undercuts his lack of attention on the bottom line. But for the recalcitrance of a few bribe-friendly deejays and the griping of Chess’ wife Revetta (Marika Dominczyk), the road to white Cadillac convertibles is relatively pothole-free.
Tripping up both marriage and business is Ivy Mills (Echikunwoke), a blues singer with a weakness for drugs and Chess. Mills is the film’s stand-in for Etta James, who rose to prominence via Chess Records while purportedly having an affair with its founder. Lending credibility to this latter turn of events is the participation of Chess’ son Marshall, who gave his blessings to the project and is depicted in the film as a young boy (played by Tendal Mann).
The screenwriters’ insistence on painting this relationship in more tragic colours than real life (James, last time we checked, is still with us) underscores the film’s tension between wanting to be a good-time music movie and satisfying some perceived checklist of dramatic conventions.
Who Do You Love is on firmer ground illustrating the mutual learning curve shared by Jewish businessmen and up-and-coming black artists adjusting themselves to one another’s language and idiosyncrasies. Director Jerry Zaks brings a warm, zingy ensemble energy to these scenes, which are lubricated by the winningly off-handed comic delivery of McBride. The technical and musical values are solid, including a sultry cover of At Last from Echikunwoke. That Etta James sentiment, perhaps more than the Bo Diddley hit that gives the film its title, better echoes the sigh of recognition this slick and diverting film delivers to Chess and his legendary protegees.
William Morris Independent