Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Golden Blues: Who Do You Love

It was a family business that introduced America to rock & roll, but they started with those devil blues. Long a favorite of blues and R&B collectors, Chess Records is now the subject of its second “biopic” in less than two years. Starting from humble origins, brothers Leonard and Phil Chess became American success stories as the founders of the preeminent blues label. Their professional ups and downs as well as the family drama behind the scenes are now dramatized in Jerry Zaks’s Who Do You Love (trailer here), which opens Friday in New York.

As Love opens, there is no mistaking the “Bo Diddley beat” on his signature tune. It drives the young crowd wild and the middle-aged Leonard Chess digs it too. Though a hardnosed businessman, the Jewish immigrant always had a natural affinity for African American music. A brash dreamer, he often overshadows his easy-going brother Phil (who hardly even appears in the competing Cadillac Records), despite being equal business partners and close siblings.

At various times, Chess and its subsidiary labels recorded some of the biggest names in American music ever, including legends like Chuck Berry, Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy, Little Walter, John Lee Hooker, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Koko Taylor, Ramsey Lewis, and Ahmad Jamal. However, Love narrows its focus nearly exclusively on four particular artists.

Blue bassist Willie Dixon was instrumental in the launch of Chess, initially serving as the brothers’ guide to Chicago’s African American music scene and eventually becoming the label’s A&R man. McKinley Morganfield, better known as Muddy Waters, personified Chess more than any other artist, recording hits like “Rollin’ Stone” that continue to reverberate. Bo Diddley represents the label’s future in Love as rock & roll’s founding father (since Berry is oddly absent), but he also causes dissension when he challenges Leonard Chess’s somewhat dubious management practices.

As in Cadillac, Leonard Chess again gets involved with a soulful diva that sings “At Last,” but for legal reasons that apparently did not apply to the previous film, she is now known as Ivy Mills instead of Etta James in Love. Wisely though, Love spends less time on this rumored affair, while giving far more attention to the dynamics between Leonard Chess, his brother, and Dixon, their musical go-between.

Cadillac had considerable charm as a big movie-musical spectacular, but Love is more faithful to the historic sounds of Chess. Instead of showcasing Beyonce as James, Love gives us old school Muddy and Diddley. Lending it further blues cred, Keb’ Mo’ also appears in a supporting role.

Perhaps Love’s biggest advantage over Cadillac though is Alessandro Nivola as Leonard Chess, instead of the badly miscast Adrian Brody. Though neither actor is a dead-ringer for the legendary producer, Nivola has the right flinty edge for the tough self-made man, whereas Brody largely moped about making moon eyes at Beyonce. However, the real standout of Love is Chi McBride as Dixon. Often funny, but also quite heartfelt, his performance soulfully captures the blues sensibility.

Directed with straight-forward economy by Tony Award winner Jerry Zaks, Love moves along nicely, conveying a good sense of the label’s music. Though it feels smaller in scope, record geeks (like me) will most likely prefer Love over Caddy, while mere mortals not intimately steeped in the Chess Records discography should enjoy the solid work of Nivola and McBride, as well as the very cool tunes. It opens in New York at the Village East this Friday (4/9).