Monday, April 5, 2010

WHO DO YOU LOVE opens: Cadillac Records revisited -- and pretty well, too

Did we need two movies about the legendary Leonard Chess and his Chess Records -- not to mention the even-
more-legendary stars -- Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Etta James, Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon -- who became part of his stable?  No matter: We got 'em.  Oddly enough, both films were made around the same time -- two years ago, though Darnell Martin's Cadillac Records appeared in theaters at the end of 2008, while this week's debut WHO DO YOU LOVE (where's the question mark?) waited another 16 months to berth in theaters.

The first of the films to be released did not set the box-office on fire and drew mixed reviews, and it is even more likely that the second will see the same fate.  Directed by semi-legend (in legit theater, at least) Jerry Zaks (shown at right), whose first foray into film was Marvins's Room (since then he's been behind the camera only for TV), Who Do You Love proves to be both very similar to Cadillac Records yet different enough to be enjoyable on its own, while offering consistently interesting comparisons between the two movies. (The writing credits here go to Peter Wortmann and  Bob Conte.)

In addition, this second telling of the Chess tale appears to have had the blessing of Leonard's brother Phil Chess (played in the film by a fine Jon Abrahams), who began the business with him, as well as that of his son Marshall. So, while we might be expected to feel that many of the details are better recalled for veracity, we also understand that the movie might just be skewed toward the Chess version, rather than that of his musical stable. (There is some question about Chess' taking advantage of his performers.)  Even so, none of this seems to mater much.  The movies/stories are similar enough that they bleed into each other in the viewer's mind so that truth, whatever that might be, seems so fuzzy, unpredictable and perhaps even changeable that we sit there, nodding in agreement: Maybe. But maybe not.

That Leonard Chess had a great love for and understanding of the music he promoted seems beyond question, and Who Do tells his story with affection and pace, if no particular style. (Ms Martin offered more "style" in her version, but occasionally it seemed a tad intrusive.) But we're probably here more for the music and performances than anything else, so this works well. This cast is noticeably less starry than that of its predecessor, but so what?  Everyone in this version is just fine, thank you.

Alessandro Nivola (above) brings good gravity and smaller scale to the role of Leonard. (Cadillac's Adrien Brody, from his nose onward, is a large presence and always great fun to watch. He brought an out-sized, sexual vigor to his rendition.  Nivola is equally sexual but subtle, too: pared down in every way, as befits the "family man" that the Chess family clearly wants to plug.  Likewise, Megalyn Echikunwoke (below) as Ivy Mills (the Etta James character played in Cadillac by Beyoncé Knowles) is less flashy with less time devoted to her character, yet she registers every bit as strongly.

Ditto Marika Dominczyk (below left, with Nivola) as Chess' wife Revetta (played by the infinitely better-known Emmanuelle Chriqui in Cadillac). Dominczyk, perhaps because she seems as close to a villainess as the movie offers (she just doesn't "get" jazz, or, for that matter, music in general), is an even stronger presence in this film.  And the musicians -- from Robert Randolph as Bo Diddley (shown performing, three photos up) to David Oyelowo as Muddy Waters, and especially Chi McBride as the heart and soul of the band and the movie, Willie Dixon -- are all first-rate.

Nostalgia for an era long-gone, with its music, cars, clothes and attitudes is so present in Who Do You Love that this alone should make the movie resonate for many viewers (even if that era long predates your birth).  For everyone else, the film can stand on its own as good, thoughtful entertainment.   It opens Friday, April 9, in NYC, April 16 in L. A. and April 30 in Chicago.  Click here and then click on the word Theaters for specifics. 

All photo are from the film, save that of Jerry Zaks, second from top -- 
which is by John Shearer, courtesy of Wire Image.

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