The closing night film of the 2011 Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, “Who Do You Love”—starring Alessandro Nivola and David Oyelowo (of the upcoming “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”)—will screen on May 12 at Laemmle’s Town Center 5 in Encino. It’s a biopic about Leonard Chess (Nivola), the Polish-Jewish immigrant who founded Chess Records with his brother, Phil (Jon Abrahams), brought Southern blues to the mainstream via black artists such as Muddy Waters (Oyelowo) and eventually helped birth rock ‘n’ roll.
Leonard Chess was such a larger-than-life figure that he has recently inspired not one, but two biopics – 2008’s “Cadillac Records” being the other. “Who Do You Love” was selected as a gala film at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival and was firmly backed by the Chess family; its filmmakers, including director Jerry Zaks, had access to the family archives and Leonard’s son, Marshall, served as a consultant to the production.
The somewhat fictionalized film – whose title comes from the Bo Diddley song, “Who Do You Love” – begins with Leonard’s scrappy childhood in a poor Jewish neighborhood in Chicago. It goes on to recount his preoccupation with the music and culture he observed in nearby black neighborhoods; his sale of the family junkyard in order to purchase the brothers’ first club, the Macomba; Leonard’s discovery of a young Muddy Waters in 1946 and his risky venture into the realm of “race records.”
Oyelowo—a British thespian of royal Nigerian descent—impeccably portrays the Mississippi born Waters, who was so impoverished upon meeting Chess that he had to borrow a guitar for the audition. Talk about versatile: Oyelowo, who previously starred as Dr. Junju in “The King of Scotland,” will next appear in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” opposite James Franco, Freida Pinto, Andy Serkis and Brian Cox in the Rupert Wyatt film hitting theaters on Aug. 5. In this “Planet of the Apes” prequel, set in modern-day San Francisco, Oyelowo will play Steve Jacobs, a corporate head pushing for further clinical trials on lab apes—genetic engineering that will eventually create intelligent apes and a war for supremacy with humans, according to metacafe.com. “I basically bring about the end of the world,” he told me.
Oyewolo will appear in several more films through January, including Dreamworks’ “The Help,” and George Lucas’ “Red Tails,” about World War II black aviators—and will also portray the American civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King in Lee Daniels’ upcoming drama, “Selma.” His British-born character in “Rise of the Apes” is “the first time I’ve used my own accent in five years,” said the London-born actor.
In “Who Do You Love,” Oyelowo’s Mississippi-bred character of Muddy Waters develops a close but complex relationship with Chess; we learn of Chess’ complicated relationship with other artists, who earned relatively low wages while the brothers made a mint. The film also hints at Leonard’s womanizing, which in the film is condensed into a single affair with a heroin-addicted singer named Ivy (Megalyn Echikunwoke). While Ivy is a fictionalized character, some critics have perceived her to be a stand-in for the singer Etta James, with whom Chess was rumored to have had an affair.
“Who Do You Love” will screen on Thursday, May 12, 7:30 p.m., at Laemmle’s Town Center, 17200 Ventura Blvd. in Encino, followed by a question-and-answer session (moderated by myself) with actors David Oyelowo (Muddy Waters) and Jon Abrahams (Phil Chess), as well as producer Jonathan Mitchell. For tickets and information, call (818) 981-9811 or visit www.lajfilmfest.org.
Here are excerpts from my recent conversation with Mitchell about why he wanted to tell Leonard Chess’ story; the more controversial aspects of the character; why Chess was crucial to the evolution of rock ‘n’ roll, and more.
NPM: How was it that you decided to make a film about Leonard Chess?
JM: I was interested in how rock ‘n’ roll came about as a result of the partnership between blacks and Jews. I discovered that Chess Records was the first rock ‘n’ roll record label; that the Chess family were Polish immigrant Jews and that Leonard Chess, the head of the family, loved black music and eventually decided he would record it. It was very unusual for white people at the time to record black music; it just wasn’t done, and he broke that barrier, if you will.
NPM: Did Chess’ Jewish background have anything to do with his willingness to break that barrier?
JM: At the time, blacks and Jews didn’t live far apart in Chicago, which is where the Chess brothers grew up, and Leonard used to go over into the black neighborhoods and listen to the music.
Leonard was an interesting character; he carried his Jewishness throughout his life, he spoke Yiddish often. But when he got into black music and wanted to get involved in that community, he started to use their vernacular and their way of speaking—you almost couldn’t tell the difference. He identified with African-Americans, and he wanted them to feel that he was a part of their community.
NP: There’s one scene where Leonard shows his brother the location that will become their future club. Phil says, basically, that no white people are going to venture into that neighborhood – and Leonard responds with something like, “F—- ‘em. We don’t need those rich white people from the suburbs.”
JM: He resented the rich, white community because early in his life he had experienced [anti-Semitism]. Maybe part of the reason he got involved in the business that he did was to kind of get back at those people; he thought he was sticking it in their eye.
NPM: Because he was responsible for bringing black music into the mainstream?
JM: He was the one who got black music onto white radio, which was critical. Black music previously just wasn’t accepted in the white world.
NPM: Why did you focus on Leonard rather than Phil?
JM: Leonard was the driving force, if you will. Phil was certainly a partner, and Leonard probably would not have been able to do it alone, but [the business] was Leonard’s concept.
NPM: In the film, Leonard has an affair with a talented but tragic African-American singer, a heroin addict, to the chagrin of his wife, Revetta (Marika Dominczyk) .
JM: In fact, he was very active with the ladies. Yet he was never divorced; he lived with his wife until his death, at age 52, of a heart attack. But he always had a roving eye.
There is only one character in the film who is a completely fictional character, and that is Ivy Mills [Leonard’s African-American mistress]. We decided to do that because we needed to let people know that Leonard wasn’t exactly the most faithful man in the world, and he developed close relationships with women who were musically inclined. In real life, he had a very close relationship with Etta James – that’s why we have Ivy sing James’ song, “At Last.” People always questioned whether or not Leonard and James had a romantic relationship; but when Marshall actually went to her and asked the question, she said they did not. Because of that, we couldn’t say the character in the film was Etta James. We took the position that he didn’t have a romantic relationship with her. But he did have romantic relationships with other women.
NPM: What about the charges that the Chess brothers exploited their black artists?
JM: Leonard was a very clever, very smart businessman – and it’s true a lot of people have charged him with taking advantage of his musicians. The fact of the matter is, nobody in the white world wanted to have anything to do with black people when it came to music. But Leonard started recording black music and trying to get it on white radio when nobody was willing to take that kind of financial risk. I also remember hearing Little Richard interviewed on VH1 and when they asked him about Jews exploiting blacks, Little Richard said, “Thank God for the Jews. If it wasn’t for the Jews, nobody would ever have heard our music.”
NPM: Were you concerned that Chess could be perceived as a kind of Shylock character?
JM: He was perceived that way by everybody. But not so much during his lifetime. Muddy Waters never, ever, felt he was exploited. After all, Leonard Chess was his champion…. He and Waters developed a very, very close relationship; in fact I don’t think Leonard Chess had a closer relationship with any other human being.
NPM: How did you get Marshall Chess involved in the film?
JM: I just picked up the telephone (laughs). I said we wanted to make a film about his family, about the birth of rock ‘n’ roll and what they’ve done for the music industry and really, music worldwide. Our screenwriters interviewed Marshall and Phil Chess, who is still alive, in his 90s and living in Arizona.
One of the most important things that Marshall ever did was to create the Rolling Stones, and he managed them for quite some time. “Rollin’ Stone” was a song that Muddy Waters did, so he took that name and applied it to the group, calling them the Rolling Stones.
Marshall told me a great story about his bar mitzvah. Leonard didn’t really know many white people; most of his comrades and the people he went around with and knew were black. And so the congregation was filled with black people, sitting there with yarmulkes on top of Afros. Marshall said he got up there and started to laugh, because it was such an unusual scene in a synagogue.