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Chess Men: Pulling Out The Biopic Tropes

Chess Men: Pulling Out The Biopic Tropes

‘Who Do You Love,’ about the Jewish brothers behind a legendary R&B label, is pleasant but inconsequential.

George Robinson covers film and music for The Jewish Week.

Is there any genre of film that is as hidebound, as resistant to change as the biopic? Even the good ones stick pretty closely to formula: he/she had a terrible/wonderful childhood, learned a trade/craft/art, wrote/painted/fought many masterpieces and died happy/unfulfilled, but leaving the world a rich legacy of something or other. Add in a struggle for love or acceptance for his/her innovation or a battle with substance abuse and you’ve got a film about the Ritz Brothers or the inventor of Ritz Crackers.

The only recent variation, and a feeble one it is, came from dreadful films about Cole Porter and Bobby Darin in which the protagonist is reviewing his life as part of a final judgment.

“Who Do You Love,” which opens on April 9, is a pleasant but inconsequential addition to the canon that doesn’t miss a clichéd beat. Following 2008’s “Cadillac Records,” this is the second film in as many years about Leonard (Alessandro Nivola) and Phil Chess (Jon Abrahams), two sons of Polish Jewish immigrants who created the greatest record label ever for blues and rhythm-and-blues and thereby altered the course of American popular music. Directed by Broadway stalwart Jerry Zaks, the film is a smooth recounting of the brothers’ risky but determined move from the junk business into running a blues club on Chicago’s South Side, which they parlayed into the Chess record label.

Zaks is the right guy for this script, by Peter Wortman and Robert Conte. It’s the kind of screenplay in which the seeming redneck who gets into a fight with Muddy Waters (David Oyewolo) and his band approaches Little Walter with what seems lethal intent, only to ask for a harmonica lesson. In other words, it’s a screenplay in which every potential crisis is sugar-coated (racial tensions get eased pretty quickly), dismissed (Leonard’s business practices are skated over) or fictionalized (the relationship between Leonard and a black singer very, very loosely based on Etta James). Bantering light comedy, the one area in which Zaks excels, is the film’s greatest strength, and one wishes that he had treated the entire story that way.

By comparison, Darnell Martin’s “Cadillac Records” is a much darker film, more deeply felt and rather closer to the true story, although Phil is a virtual non-being in that version. Perhaps it’s the combination of a black female director and Adrien Brody as Len that gives the film its more substantial heft, although it has its fair share of clichés, too. Ironically, Brody plays Leonard as something of a loveable con artist, while Nivola’s version of the label owner is closer in demeanor to a low-level mobster, yet it is the Brody performance that carries the greater gravity and anchors the earlier film securely.

On the plus side, “Who Do You Love” has a nicely judged performance from Chi McBride as the great songwriter Willie Dixon, here portrayed as a shrewd, eminently practical guide to African-American culture, and the presence of real musicians Keb’ Mo’ (as guitarist Jimmy Rogers) and Robert Randolph (as Bo Diddley) give the film a certain authenticity.

Retelling a human life is much too complicated a procedure to fit into a neat 95-minute package. The purpose of the biopic conventions is the same as those of any other genre: to give an audience a set of readable cues that will guide them through the complexities with a minimum of confusion. The problem with the biopic is that any life of sufficient moment to justify a cinematic recounting is probably too complicated to retell in the confines of the genre. So we get mostly unsatisfactory results, like these two films about Chess Records. One, “Cadillac Records,” tries to do too much and unintentionally leaves us unsettled (and its central character a messy pile of contradictions). The other, “Who Do You Love,” tries to reduce the story to a sort of greatest-hits album and loses out on texture, detail and feeling. Seen back-to-back, they give a slightly more rounded, but still unfulfilling portrait of a great musical institution and the people who made it work.

Truth be told, you’d be much better off buying the giant box set of Chess hits and spending many, many blissful hours listening. n

“Who Do You Love” opens Friday, April 9 at the Village East Cinemas (Second Avenue and 12th Street), the Clearview Cinema (First Avenue and 62nd Street) and the National Black Theater (Fifth Avenue between 125th and 126th streets).

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