The story of Leonard Chess, son of immigrants, founder of Chess Records and the man who delivered Chicago blues and Chuck Berry to the world, is epic, American and timely (part of the reason Sony’s Chess biopic, “Cadillac Records,” will be released next year). “Who Do You Love,” from helmer Jerry Zaks and scribes Peter Wortmann and Bob Conte, could draw auds with its score — rich in Chess hits — and its considerable drama, even if Zaks’ efforts to evoke a pictorial sense of the’50s and ’60s leaves the film feeling a bit static.
It’s an interesting aesthetic strategy, though, and as expected from a theater titan like Zaks (“Six Degrees of Separation,” “House of Blue Leaves’). The performances are solid, notably that of Alessandro Nivola, who walks a delicate line as Chess between sympathetic and contemptible: His dealings with men like Willie Dixon (a great Chi McBride), the songwriter/bassist who wrangled bluesmen for the company, are as dubious as his generosity toward label mainstay Muddy Waters (a twinkling David Oyelowo).
First-rate acting is also delivered by newcomer Megalyn Echikunwoke as doomed singer Ivy Mills and Marika Dominczyk as the long-suffering Mrs. Chess, While the movie doesn’t electrify, it is funny, revealing and always watchable.
The Chess brothers — the phlegmatic Phil (Jon Abrahams) and the older, restless Leonard — are running a junkyard when Leonard gets the itch to start a blues nightclub; he sees the financial possibilities in black music; it’s unclear he ever sees anything else. His alliance with Dixon, and their eventual meeting with the transplanted Mississippi blues genius Muddy Waters — portrayed in a way that’s probably apocryphal, but certainly works — kicks Chess Records into high gear.
But Leonard, as the classic Dixon song says, can’t be satisfied. “What Leonard does,” says his wife Revetta, “he does for Leonard.” “Who Do You Love” answers its own question, and is ultimately an entertaining story about a deeply lonely man.