Monday, April 12, 2010

'Who Do You Love': White Boy Blues, By Kurt Loder

It's questionable whether Chess Records, the great rhythm & blues label of the 1950s, required two movies to (sort of) tell its story. Nevertheless, less than two years after the so-so "Cadillac Records," here comes "Who Do You Love," which is so-so in different ways.

The story is essentially the same in outline: how two scrappy Polish Jews, the brothers Leonard and Phil Chess, parlayed their family junkyard business into an R&B nightclub on Chicago's South Side, and then into an independent record label, which in 1950 they dubbed Chess. "Who Do You Love" is better on this part of the famous tale than "Cadillac Records" managed to be, thanks mainly to a clenched, forceful performance by Alessandro Nivola, who plays Leonard Chess as the overbearing hardass he quite likely was. (The recessive Adrien Brody was all wrong for this role in the previous movie.) In addition, Jon Abrahams brings a sturdy likability to the part of Phil Chess (an invisible man in the earlier film). So far, so good.

Chess Records started scoring R&B hits right off the bat, first with the awesome Muddy Waters, and subsequently with Little Walter (the harmonica virtuoso in Muddy's band), Howlin' Wolf (whose early sides were actually recorded in Memphis by Sam Phillips), and many other acts. Then, in 1955, came Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, whose Chess recordings may not have marked the birth of rock and roll music, but certainly confirmed its arrival.

Arguably, no movie could be big enough to contain both Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. And so Berry, who was gleefully portrayed by Mos Def in "Cadillac Records," is absent from this film, while Diddley, a non-person in the earlier picture, is excitingly brought to life here by the pedal-steel guitarist Robert Randolph (an inspired bit of casting). Elsewhere in the able cast, David Oyelowo contributes a touching portrait of Muddy Waters as a fading star who knows he's being eclipsed by the upstart likes of Bo Diddley, but who accepts it with the stoic grace of the blues itself. And Chi McBride gives an ebullient performance as the bassist and prolific songwriter Willie Dixon, the man who showed Leonard Chess the R&B ropes. ("I'm his guide into the exotic Negro world," Willie says.)

The picture suffers from the usual problems of focus (black music, white protagonist) and resemblance, both physical (only McBride really looks much like the man he's playing) and musical (the club, concert and studio performances here are spirited, but no one would mistake them for the real deal). Where the movie goes most wrong, though, is in its depiction of singer Etta James. In "Cadillac Records," Beyoncй Knowles aced this part — she was compellingly abrasive, and of course she could really sing. Here, the character is given the fictitious name of Ivy Mills — purportedly a composite of James and other singers with whom Leonard Chess carried on affairs. This is an awkward evasion, especially since we see Ivy in the Chess studio attempting to record "At Last," which was James' most resonant hit. Megalyn Echikunwoke, who plays the part, is a strikingly beautiful actress, and she's affecting in her portrayal of a woman whose career is being strangled in the iron grip of drug addiction. But Echikunwoke is anything but Etta-like as a singer; and when her character is killed off to support a sentimental plot point — when we know the real Etta James is still alive — it feels like a cheat.

It seems as if Darnell Martin, who directed "Cadillac Records," like Jerry Zaks, who directed this movie, felt that the story of Chess Records could be straightforward period drama. But it's much more than that. There may be too much complex musicology, racial sociology and arcane business scammery woven through it to cram into any one film. Or, as we see now, any two.

Don't miss Kurt Loder's reviews of "After.Life" and "Date Night," also new in theaters this week.

Check out everything we've got on "Who Do You Love."

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