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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
White Man, Black Music
by Donald Levit

Closing with unnecessary historical future printed information and strung with flat acting on a schmaltzy happy-ending clothesline of a “true” story, Who Do You Love pictures a cleaned-up 1940s-’50 Chicago. Worth the ticket, however, are the recreated performances that back the more than nostalgic music of the era.

The framed action starts and finishes with Bo Diddley (Robert Randolph) cavorting while three stroke/rest/two stroking his title song to ecstatic adolescents at the Alan Freed (Ian Leson) 1955 Brooklyn Paramount Show. Not broached are Freed’s troubles over deejaying black acts over white covers and letting Frankie Lymon dance with a white girl on TV, his industry-wide blackballing and vengeful prosecution for payola and tax evasion. Instead, film teens of both races dance down the white rope segregating them at Indiana’s Jackson Hall concert, while local racist Jake (J.D. Evermore) sheepishly asks the band’s Little Walter (Miko DeFoor) for harmonica tips.

A blighted South Side ghetto is screen-whitewashed here, switchblades and handguns not used and alcohol not abused, heroin absent apart from a single sanitized OD death, and radio station payola made funny. The enjoyable music, the roots and performances are hung from the central line of what is finally an American success story, that of Leonard Chess (Alessandro Nivola).

The Polish-born Chess brothers are drawn to street bluesmen, pick up their compound obscenity (actually not common until later years), ever so occasionally revert to Yiddish, and have none of the country’s racist attitudes. Criticism of Leonard for underpaying his uneducated musicians -- who didn’t? -- and Muddy Waters’ (David Oyelowo) legal action to get back royalties are omitted. When right-hand man, advisor, entrée to the black world, song writer, house bassist, arranger and producer big Willie Dixon (Chi McBride) walks away, his anger is at tight-fisted, and only perhaps unscrupulous, business dealings.

Enamored of the sounds that 1950s whites seldom heard, Leonard convinces brother Phil (Jon Abrahams) to leave their inherited scrap yard, to do up and jointly open the Macomba Club. From a chance remark of Leonard’s son Marshall (Tendal Mann), they raid the rainy-day money to start up in the 78-record business. At South Cottage Grove and East Forty-ninth, Chess Records and Universal Recording Corp. became legendary, made money, popularized a style, and furnished opportunities and launched careers.

The more central focus is the man Leonard, strangely ignorant of the African-American culture giving rise to the music he could not resist, and obsessed equally with disseminating those sounds and with the nitty-gritty involved in doing so. Younger Phil quietly works as hard but does not lose sight of his decency and love for wife Sheva (Lisa Goldstein) and sister-in-law Revetta (Marika Dominczyk) and nephew Marshall.


Away too many work hours from their respectable suburban home, canceling out on a two-week family outing in Michigan, in his enthusiasm blind to Revetta’s alienation, Leonard drives away those who surround him and falls into the bed of reclamation project Ivy Mills (Megalyn Ann Echikunwoke), torchy, talented, unreliable, addicted, a fast and very loose portrait of Etta James, who did not join the label until 1960.

White-walled Eldorado and Coupe de Ville convertibles merely bandage wounds, but humility needs to be recaptured, and love “that slowly grows and grows.” That such will be the case is no surprise, apparent in the wings of the opening stage performance. It is such performances that make the movie. The rest is more borscht than history. 

(Released by International Film Circuit; not rated by MPAA.)

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