What’s Love Got to Do with It [50 New-Old Movies for the 51st Year #35]

Mid-last year, I turned 50 years old!  And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which came out in each year of my life (thus the “Old-New” terminology), and then write a bit about it.  This is Post #35.  Spoilers ahead.  

What’s Love Got to Do with It

Directed by Brian Gibson

Release Date:  June 25, 1993
My age then:  23 years old

What it is about:  The story of real life singer Tina Turner: young Anna Mae Bullock meets musician and bandleader Ike Turner, becoming his lead singer, and eventually lover and wife. Rebranded as Tina Turner, Anna Mae becomes a popular celebrity, but discovers that Ike is insecure and abusive. After enduring many years his violence, Anna Mae finally makes a move and divorces him. In the courtroom she wins the right to continue to use her stage name, and goes on to find continued success as a rock singer.

Starring Angela Bassett as Tina Turner (aka Anna Mae Bullock), Laurence Fishburne as Ike Turner, Rae’Ven Larrymore Kelly as young Anna Mae Bullock, Jenifer Lewis as Anna Mae’s mother, Phyllis Yvonne Stickney as her’s sister, Penny Johnson Jerald (from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, The Orville and 24) as Ike’s ex-lover Lorraine, Vanessa Bell Calloway as Jackie (Tina’s friend and back-up singer), Rob LaBelle as music producer Phil Specter, and James Reyne as Tina’s eventual manager Roger Davies.

My impressions of this movie before I watched it:  1993 was a great year for movies, and I was pretty diligent about seeing a lot of them–Schindler’s List, The Piano, Shadowlands, The Remains of the Day, The Fugitive, Philadelphia, Short Cuts…but in the midst of it all I missed What’s Love Got to Do with It. But now, thanks to Disney+ adding all sorts of thins on their “Star” channel, I was able to catch it. Anyway, I knew it was a biopic about Tina Turner and her husband, and that the relationship was troubled and probably abusive. I’d seen the scene where a battered Tina Turner asks for a room at a hotel even though she has no money. And I knew that both Bassett and Fishburne had been nominated for Oscars for their roles. But I didn’t know anything else about the movie beyond that, and I didn’t really know anything about Tina Turner herself beyond the obvious point that she is a singer.

Reality: What’s Love Got to Do with It is not a pleasant story to watch, but it’s a solid film which does a good job depicting the ascension to stardom of a 20th century music icon. Of course, it is a “biopic”, which automatically means it’s got certain hurdles to overcome. It has to cover a great deal of time, for example, and to make sense out of a lot of different moments through those years, which means that sometimes we feel immersed in the characters and the narrative, but other times we are kept at a bit of distance. There is a sequence, for example, where Tina Turner attempts to leave her husband by sneaking out with her children and taking a bus. He catches up with them, steals the kids back and insists she get into his car and come home. It’s a good scene but we’re not really given much to justify dramatically why she agrees, aside from the fact that that is what presumably happened in real life. Nor are we told what the consequences of those actions are, as the film then skips ahead some number of years to bring us to the next key point.

Tying it all together, though, are some outstanding performances. Angela Bassett is spectacular in the lead role, taking Anna Mae Bullock from a naive teenager arriving in the big city for the first time to the seasoned Tina Turner, launching a successful redefining comeback at aged 44. She is engrossing every step of the way, whether we’re seeing her in self-denial at her nightmare of a marriage, or finding freedom as she cuts loose with her energized stage performances. Bassett isn’t the movie’s only good performance, but she’s the anchor for everything else. Moments like her accepting a kiss from her husband on stage after being bitterly hurt by him, or when she leaves him finally to get her own hotel room, are powerful and worth the price of admission.

The only other performer who might be as significant is Tina Turner herself, who provides all of her own singing. Her iconic voice obviously brings an air of authenticity, but also helps to tie the character together. It’s a testament to Angela Bassett’s power as an actress that one really believes the Tina Turner we’re seeing on screen is belting out those signature gravelly vocals.

Nearly as important as Bassett is Laurence Fishburne as Ike Turner. He comes onto screen with a suave charisma that one completely believes would stir any woman he set his mind to. But there’s a dark and manipulative streak lurking not far beneath the surface, and when it explodes violently it feels not like a twist but rather a sad inevitability. In some ways Ike Turner is not a complex character–he goes through very little change in the movie aside from his unending descent into depravity and self-loathing–but he’s a memorable presence. And if he is a bit one-note, at least Fishburne portrays that note extremely well.

I knew almost nothing about Tina Turner before watching What’s Love Got to Do with It, but I realize it’s important to remember with movies like this that though they are based on true stories, they cannot be relied upon as a source of historical facts. Both Tina and Ike Turner have expressed dissatisfaction with how things were portrayed. Apparently, for example, Ike never raped Tina, and he didn’t show up in her dressing room to threaten her with a gun. And Tina Turner has expressed issues with how the movie depicts her as a victim in her marriage. So as a historical record, the movie is suspect, but as drama–its pretty powerful.

(Incidentally, it’s odd to see Phil Specter depicted in the movie–of course he’s a significant music producer who played a role in Tina Turner’s life, but he also just died a convicted murderer–not something that anyone involved in this movie would have ever expected, one presumes.)

So…when you get down to it, what did I think? It’s a difficult watch at times, because of the intensity and frequency of the domestic violence that we see, but worth pushing through because of the performances, the music, and the triumphant ending.

See here for the Master List.

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