I guess it’s whistling Dixie to hope that Hollywood will ever make a warts-and-all biopic of an entertainer. Ray (2004) ignored the serial infidelities and gross drug use of Ray Charles, although, to give it credit, it did have Jamie Foxx lip sync to Charles’ unusual voice. Walk the Line, probably the poster child for a lost opportunity, not only had non-singer Joaquin Phoenix use his own unprofessional voice instead of Johnny Cash’s (at Phoenix’s insistence), it also ignored the deplorable way Cash dumped his loyal wife and mother of his children for another woman, and gave short shrift to his drug addictions and his serial infidelities. Those are only two of a myriad of biopics that paint seriously flawed “stars” as just wonderful people.
Cadillac Records (2008) was the first of two biopics of the Chess brothers, Leonard and Phil, who in this film are played by Alessandro Nivola and Jon Abrahams. The brothers were catalysts for bringing the traditionally black music of the blues into the mainstream. Like Cadillac, this ignores the way the Chess brothers took advantage of the poor, uneducated, but highly talented black entertainers they shepherded, like Muddy Waters, keeping most of the money for themselves.
I was hoping that this would show more of their warts, but it was not to be. Not only that, but how can you make a biopic of the Chess brothers and not even mention the name of the legendary Chuck Berry (“Rock and Roll Music,” ”School Days,” ”Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Johnny B. Goode,” to name just a few of the hundreds of songs he wrote and sang, in addition to his famous duckwalk)? But that’s what director Jerry Zaks has done here. I have to assume that Zaks had some problem with copyright and permissions because Etta James, whose rendition of “At Last” is a classic, doesn’t make an appearance, either. In fact, James didn’t hide her disgust that Beyoncé, an executive producer of Cadillac Records, used her voice in singing “At Last,” instead of lip syncing to James’ voice. Along with James, Leonard Chess’ multiple infidelities against his wife, Revetta (Marika Dominczyk), are comprised in one composite fictional character, Ivy Mills (Megalyn Ann Echikunwoke), who is shown with a beautiful voice, a willingness to sleep with Leonard, and an addiction to drugs.
There are so many reasons why this is a disappointment. Just as Walk the Line gave scant attention to Johnny Cash’s wonderful music, this ignores the marvelous music that the Chess brothers were responsible for bringing to the public. Most biopics of musicians present the opportunity to combine a good story with a concert of great music. Ray fulfilled that promise. Walk the Line didn’t, and neither does Who Do You Love.