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Screens & Tech

'Who Do You Love' explores the history of Chess Records and the birth of rock 'n' roll

Photo: Courtesy photo, License: N/A

Courtesy photo

Pioneers Muddy Waters (David Oyelowo) and Leonard Chess (Alessandro Nivola) in Who Do You Love.

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The tale of Chess Records may not be an unfamiliar one, particularly to those who saw Cadillac Records in 2008. However, it’s counterpart Who Do You Love (which did the festival rounds in 2008-09, but was theatrically released in 2010) aims to reframe or, if nothing else, set the record straight on some of Cadillac’s more glaring inaccuracies. Opting to script around accounts from the Chess family rather than the wills of a big-budget cast, Who Do You Love shifts the focus to the man primarily responsible for building the empire: label head Leonard Chess. His son Marshall, who acted as an advisor to Who Do You Love, shared his thoughts on the portrayal of Chess in both films, his experiences with the artists behind them, and his father’s favorite curse word.

Can you give a little background on your involvement with Who Do You Love?

Well, I’m in it, as a child. And I gave them as much of my knowledge of that period as I had. I had many meetings with the scriptwriters, and met with the actors to describe the personality of my father and uncle. I was involved, not as deeply as I would have liked to be, but I was happy with the way it came out.

So how did that differ from Cadillac Records?

It’s much more real. Cadillac Records really became a total work of fiction. My uncle Phil Chess, who was my father’s symbiotic, synergistic partner, wasn’t even in Cadillac Records. The way my father died was totally untrue. It was Hollywood. I mean, Beyoncé is a fantastic star, she had great charisma. She played Etta James in Cadillac, but even that was totally untrue. My father never had an affair with Etta James. It seems like all these movies, including Who Do You Love, have to put sex in the movie to make it sell. And it bothered my family, and it bothered Etta James. I asked her, ‘Did you ever do anything with my father?’ and she said, ‘All I ever did was kiss him on the cheek.’”

So did both films start production around the same time?

Yeah, it was very strange. They were both being made at exactly the same time. And for my family it’s nice to have two films made. You know, at first you’re bothered, because it’s fictional. It’s not the way you remember, and your mother’s not that way. And especially me, I thought I was cooler than the kid that played me. He wore a cowboy hat and acted like a dork. I was wearing custom-made suits by the blues guys' tailor by the time I was 13. So I was much different. But what happens is time goes by, and people only really remember Chess Records and how important it was to the birth of rock ’n’ roll. All that fictional stuff that bothered me, they forget.

Do you feel like there was a catalyst for the sudden renewed interest in the story of Chess Records?

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