Have you read about the “Cinderella” novel that, after three years of rejections from publishers and agents, just won the Pulitzer?
Well, I’m dying to nominate the totally hypnotic movie Who Do You Love for an Academy Award. Alas, I can’t. Every story doesn’t get a happy ending.
And I wish I could review a couple movie reviewers (they run in packs like wolves, producing almost identical reviews), including the New York Times’ Stephen Holden. He nit-picked to near-death this superb fictionalized biography of the Chess brothers, who launched rock ‘n’ roll in Chicago in the 1940s. He keeps comparing it unfavorably to Cadillac Records, a star-studded movie on the same subject released a year ago. Critics instigate tragedy. It’s blood sport.
Yes, I’m way too vengeful. But when I read Holden’s review of Who Do You Love, I almost hoped Rubert Murdoch would buy the Times to turn it into a tabloid just to punish Holden. He’d fit right in with his off-the-wall movie taste.
Holden quibbles with the film’s timeline because Etta James’ sultry hit “At Last” came out in 1961, after the movie ends. But the main female character isn’t Etta James. She’s a fictional character, sexy and doomed, named Ivy Mills, who can’t sing unless she’s high on heroin. Ivy seduces the married Leonard Chess (played by the super-intense, utterly believable Alessandro Nivola), separating him from his wife. Chess tries to get Ivy Mills off heroin and when he goes to her hotel room to end their relationship, he finds her dead.
Who Do You Love is an example of Hollywood money people poking fat, greedy fingers into movie pies. Our best movies are either never made or are unceremoniously dumped by dumb producers or distributors.
The mile-a-minute Who Do You Love uses music like it’s Meryl Streep. The moment I sat down, I was pulled out of my own body into the world of the Jewish Chess brothers, who boldly traded an inherited junkyard for a musical empire. They created a loving, almost curatorial business relationship with such greats as Delta blues genius Muddy Waters (played with a swagger by the charismatic David Oyelowo) and Bo Diddley (played by Robert Randolph).
Chi McBride gently steals every scene (remember him? He played a mayor on Monk). Here he plays Willie Dixon, bass player and songwriter who guides Leonard Chess through his mesmerizing voyage of discovery of Chicago’s culture of black music originals. McBride can make us feel nearly anything with his reaction shots—from irony to pain—and he never ever overplays it.
The woman sitting next to me at the East Village theater clapped at the end of the film and said she got a lump in her throat when, after a disagreement, McBride tells Leonard Chess that he gets it, their relationship is not friendship, just business. This movie should be McBride’s break-out hit.
By the time you read this, hideous random circumstances will have pulled Who Do You Love from theaters. I can only urge you to barrage Netflix and Video Room and watch it at home.
This movie is the finest I’ve seen in a long time made by Americans. It wasn’t released well. Indeed, it was dumped almost anonymously. It should’ve opened at Sundance. But I’m proud that this film is better than the best BBC work—a high standard, indeed.
Shit happens, particularly in our movie business, where self-promotion and brazen belief in oneself, alas, trump good taste and great entertainment.
Susan Braudy is the author and journalist whose last book, Family Circle: The Boudins and the Aristocracy of the Left, was nominated for a Pulitzer by publisher Alfred Knopf.
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