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THE BIG PICTURE / PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

These hustlers got into the swing of America

September 12, 2008|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

TORONTO — The greatest thing about being at a film festival isn't just having the opportunity to see movies all day and night. It's having the chance to see connections between different films that you might not have noticed if you weren't in the middle of such a great cinematic smorgasbord. For example, two movies I saw this week at the Toronto International Film Festival appear totally different at first glance, but under the surface they have striking similarities. (Both are commercial challenges, so don't expect either one to pop up at your local multiplex next month.)

"American Swing" is a documentary about Larry Levenson, a former wholesale brisket distributor who in 1977 started Plato's Retreat, the legendary New York City nightclub where -- for a mere $35 membership fee -- ordinary couples could meet other couples and have free, uninhibited, often very public sex. The hip celebrities of that era had Studio 54, the punk rockers had CBGB, but the bridge-and-tunnel crowd from Jersey and Long Island had Plato's Retreat.

The movie, directed by Mathew Kaufman and Jon Hart, doesn't offer much in the way of thoughtful analysis, but it supplies a fascinating glimpse of how the free love of the hippie-drenched 1960s went down-market, trading in its gauzy utopianism and tie-dyed peasant blouses for '70s leisure suits and madcap opportunism. Levenson is a great oversized character, an awkward Jewish hustler -- whenever we see him in clips from "The David Susskind Show," he's sweating profusely -- who finds his calling as a fast-talking sexual entrepreneur. His downfall was swift, hastened by a prison rap for tax evasion and the arrival of AIDS, but Levenson had quite a ride as one of the best sex salesmen the modern era has seen.

The other movie, a feature film called "Who Do You Love," is about a different kind of cultural entrepreneur: Leonard Chess, who along with younger brother Phil started Chess Records, the legendary Chicago-based record label that dominated the charts in the 1950s, launching the careers of blues greats Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Willie Dixon and Sonny Boy Williamson as well as rock pioneers Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley.

Like Levenson, Leonard Chess was a shrewd salesman (with a keen ear for a hit song) who worked his way up from the bottom -- junkyard owner to nightclub proprietor to record label impresario. As an outsider (he was 9 when his family immigrated to Chicago from Poland), he had an instinctual identification with the young black musicians in Chicago, who were in a way immigrants themselves. While Jews like Chess fled persecution in Poland, blacks like Muddy Waters fled racial persecution in the South.

Leonard Chess was the ultimate tough Jew. His favorite endearment is a snatch of obscene slang he learned as a boy. If someone pulled a knife in his club, he pulled a gun. In the film, when Leonard and Phil (played by Alessandro Nivola and Jon Abrahams) wear pin-striped suits to the bank, trying to get a loan, they look like Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel. But Leonard Chess was a visionary. He realized that, after a massive black migration from the South, the ghettos were full of people who wanted to hear a brash new music, full of swagger and sexual bravado, and he found artists to deliver it.

The film, directed by Jerry Zaks, is at its best showing Leonard Chess at work with Waters and Dixon, capturing the odd combination of affection and tension that existed between Chess and his artists, who might get a Cadillac if they had a big hit but didn't get much of a proper accounting for their royalties. It also takes a lot of liberties along the way, inventing an affair Chess had with an Etta James-type singer and entirely cutting Chuck Berry (the label's biggest-selling and most influential artist) out of the movie, apparently because Berry, who is still alive, wouldn't make a deal for his music rights. But it perfectly captures the essence of Leonard Chess. He was one of those great American entrepreneurs who discovered a new cultural form -- urban blues -- and did his best to both celebrate and exploit it.

"It's just a snapshot, it's in no way the whole true story of Chess," Marshall Chess, Leonard's son, told me Wednesday. Marshall helped advise the filmmakers and is portrayed as a boy in the film. "But it gets the spirit of what my dad and Phil were doing. There were tons of guys like them in the early days of the record business, most of them Jewish, most of them all buddies. I guess it was like the early days of the movie business. It was a new industry and a new way for these very street-smart but uneducated guys who didn't have access to a lot of other opportunities to make a living."

It's funny to see how different generations of immigrants carve out their own vision of American culture. The early movie studio moguls created Andy Hardy, Middle American fantasies. Leonard Chess captured the grit of urban life. "My father just liked black culture," says Marshall. "He felt much more secure and at home around black people than he did around white people. My bar mitzvah was one of the biggest interracial events in Chicago in that era. For my day, it was a thrill to be around black people. They played music, which he'd hardly ever heard as a boy in Poland. They liked to drink and have a good time. They weren't buttoned-down. And to my dad, that was the real America, where you had the freedom to really enjoy life."

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patrick.goldstein@latimes.com

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For more on the Toronto International Film Festival, go to latimes.com/toronto.

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