It’s Dangerous Liaisons versus Valmont—or Capote versus Infamous—all over again. But the question of why we needed two movies on the rise of Chess Records is less interesting than the question of why we needed one: Now we can decide which is the less conventional biopic. Directed by Broadway musical veteran Jerry Zaks, Who Do You Love has a considerably lower budget but is in some respects more original than 2008’s chart-climb montage-fest Cadillac Records, and it offers a more dynamic take on its central character. Alessandro Nivola’s Leonard Chess is much more of a monomaniacal creep than Adrien Brody’s affable entrepreneur, and the movie takes genuine interest both in his ongoing tug-of-war with Muddy Waters (David Oyelowo) and in the song-making process. There’s also a vivid sense of the skepticism Chess faced in crossing racial boundaries in ’40s and ’50s Chicago.
Of course, it’s still a biopic, with a rote moral about a visionary who’s too devoted to his work for his family or this world. (The fate of his mistress, Ivy Mills, the movie’s radically repurposed Etta James figure, will baffle anyone even broadly acquainted with the history.) Louisiana plays Chicago, and for all the movie’s welcome prickliness, that’s about as convincing as it gets.