Studio: International Film Circuit
Plot: The life story of legendary record producer Leonard Chess, founder of Chess Records, the label that helped popularize Blues music during the 1950s.
Cast: Jon Abrahams, Alessandro Nivola, Chi McBride, David Oyelowo
Bottom Line: **1/2
By Samantha Ofole-Prince
A mildly entertaining story of a club owner who nurtured a stable of black artists and made them stars in the 1950s, “Who Do You Love” presents an intimate look into the lives of Leonard and Phil Chess, legendary founders of Chess Records.
Staring Alessandro Nivola (“The Eye”), Jon Abrahams and Chi McBride as bassist Willie Dixon, it chronicles the rise and fall of the music powerhouse that brought to prominence such stars as Muddy Waters, Bo Diddly and Etta James and presents a poignant look into the strain the label placed on the Chess family.
Named after a Bo Diddly song and directed by Jerry Zaks, it’s the second of two recently made biopics which focus on the music label. Whilst the movie “Cadillac Records” focused more on the label’s musicians, “Who Do You Love” profiles the brother’s meteoric rise from Illinois junkyard operators to record producers.
A rousing tale packed with colorfully flawed characters, Nivola and Abrahams play the brothers Leonard and Phil. Both become enamored with the new blues sound emanating from the city and open a club called Macomba with the help of a black bass player and songwriter Willie Dixon, who becomes Leonard’s guide and advisor. After initial failure, they find tremendous success with the iconic bluesman Muddy Waters, and on the strength of his popularity, start Chess Records which quickly grows into an influential label, launching the careers of Waters, Diddly and Chuck Berry.
The movie, which begins by looking through the eyes of a young Leonard in the family owned junkyard also stars British actor David Oyelowo (“The Last King of Scotland”) as Waters, the label’s most prolific musician. Oyelowo, who bears an incredibly strong resemblance to the late musician worked with a dialect coach to nail the Southern sound and also learned to play guitar. Chi McBride, probably the most recognizable of the cast, with roles in such films as “I, Robot” and “First Sunday” commands the screen with a quiet serenity and depth that makes this more than just another bogus biopic.
A snapshot of the era in which the music that was to become the foundation of Rock & Roll was created, “Who Do You Love” does justice to a remarkable label that was a pivotal force in introducing electric Chicago-style blues to a much broader audience.