Leonard Chess would have been chuffed at the idea of just one biopic made about his life, with a dreamy Hollywood actor playing the record industry legend, let alone two. Hell, Sam Phillips hasn’t even gotten one (unless you count a few scenes in Walk the Line years back). After Darnell Martin’s divisive Cadillac Records, Chess’s story gets a second, infinitely less desirable go-round, Who Do You Love, which plays like the lazy, hackneyed greatest-hits version of Martin’s film. You get Chess (played by Alessandro Nivola), the idea man, making deals to create new sounds with his second-fiddle brother Phil (Jon Abrahams), his kinship with blues up-and-comer Muddy Waters (David Oyelowo), his lustful affair with Etta James (oops, Ivy Mills as she’s called here, as if we couldn’t gather who she’s supposed to be), and his long-suffering wife Revetta (Marika Dominczyk), who, with their young son, watches him become the big cheese with the “race records.”
Directed in tepid, episodic TV fashion by Jerry Zaks, whose theater work can at least be counted on for some vibrancy, Love ambles along poorly from one ill-conceived, brutally edited vignette to another, every scene short but not so sweet, and yet you still cannot escape the feeling of time-wasting déjà vu if you’ve seen Cadillac Records. Maybe it’s because, despite that film’s flaws, you got a real sense that Brody’s Leonard and Jeffrey Wright’s Muddy, in particular, had a bond that seemed credible and on a level playing field. Here, as embodied by a dour Nivola, who can be such rascally fun in movies yet often plays roles these days that are glum and affected, and a rarely acknowledged, inauthentic Oyelowo, they barely seem to know one another, but you can’t blame them really. The screenplay is so uninspired for detail on these people, we get a prologue of the Chess brothers calling each other “motherfuckers” after hearing a blues guitarist say it, then we get to hear Leonard indulge in calling nearly everyone in the film one at some point, like some faux-adorable calling-card gesture. Well, Mr. Chess—wherever you are—thank you for the music, but I’m sorry to inform you that your new biopic is one sorry-ass motherfucker.