When “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical” hit the road a few years back, two different women were cast to play the singing, dancing tyro from “Nutbush City Limits.” The producers weren’t stupid. What mere mortal could pull off what Turner did, night after night, on stages all over the world?
You hear that, and remember the big knock against “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” when it came out in 1993. A well-cast musical bio-pic that earned Oscar nominations for stars Angela Bassett in the title role, and for Laurence Fishburne, magnificently loathsome are her controlling, abusive Svengali husband Ike Turner, “Love” never quite got past the feeling that Bassett somehow should have attempted to sing like Tina.
After all, if Gary Busey of all people could transform himself into Buddy Holly (1978) and Sissy Spacek could channel the Queen of Country Music, Loretta Lynn (1980), if you want your movie to become an Oscar-honored classic, that’s the extra effort you’ve got to make.
Turner, who just died this past week, had a distinct persona, dance style and voice. “Inimitable?” Maybe.
Remember, Jessica Lange didn’t dare do her own singing for the Oscar bait Patsy Cline biography, “Sweet Dreams” (1985). Remember too, that not nearly as many people remember “Sweet Dreams” as recall “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “The Buddy Holly Story” or the new gold standard for musical bio-pics, “Ray.”
I rewatched “What’s Love” when some canny film packaging service re-sold the film to free streaming services when news of Turner’s turn for the worse came out a few months back. It’s a thoroughly entertaining, emotionally-involving story of obscurity turned into success thanks to the rock’n roll meritocracy and the American work ethic that saw the former Anna Mae Bullock leave it ALL on the stage, every night.
Bassett, on the short list of Best Actresses Never to Win an Oscar, is riveting in the title role. And rewatching it, I have to say Fishburne was even better. The fact that she seemed destined to lose the Oscar for not singing probably hurt Fish’s best shot at an Academy Award.
He gives Ike the silky, seductive charm that would have won Anna Mae over, the business savvy and drive of an R&B man who knew he’d have to work twice as hard just to break even, much less break through, being Black, and the bitterness of an abusive husband who took out his frustration — violently — on his wife and others.
We’ve always talked up Bassett’s step-perfect Tina impersonation. Fishburne, playing the uglier role and doing his own singing, knocks this Ike right out of the park. He’d turned the role down more than once, but when Bassett signed on, he did, too, and the movie got made.
But at Oscar time, one couldn’t vote for “Ike” if Tina wasn’t going to get your vote as well, could one? What kind of message would that send?
“Tina Loses to Ike at the Oscars!”
Coming back to this 30 year-old bio-pic, you can see the signs that it wasn’t the prestige picture it might have been. Disney was famously tight-fisted back then, and Touchstone produced it. Director Brian Gibson was best-known for music videos before this outing, and nothing he made afterwards — Gibson died in 2004 — was on a par with his Tina pic.
Casting the comically-snide Jenifer Lewis as Anna Mae’s eyes-on-the-money-prize Mom paid off, but aside from Chi McBride and Khandi Alexander, the supporting cast showed more Disney penny pinching.
The narrative covers Tina’s childhood, belting out tunes at her suburban Memphis church, left to be raised by her grandmother, her discovery by Ike when she auditioned to be a new singer — he went through them — her early grasp of stage presence and the power in her performances, the hair-straightening accident that pointed her toward a lifetime of wigs.
The dialogue doesn’t have the humor of “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” the pop of “Ray.”
“What’s Love Got to Do With It?” is most moving when Tina, after years of abuse, escapes Ike’s clutches, embraces Buddhism and comes back as the Last Rock Star, a figure the entire world would mourn when she passed at 83.
Some criticized the production’s decision to use the “real” Tina, in performance, in the closing moments as disrespecting Bassett’s performance and perhaps costing her the Oscar.
I couldn’t help but notice that “Bohemian Rhapsody,” in which Rami Malek didn’t get to take his best shot at singing like Freddie Mercury, didn’t make the same mistake, decades later. He and his movie went on to win Oscars.
Every musical bio-pic to come along since, especially the ones that had Oscar hopes but slim budgets, has gone to school on “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” — “Respect,” “Get On Up,” “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” among them.
“What’s Love Got to Do With It?” manages to show us a classic rise/fall/comeback tale with a little flair and a lot of heat. Bassett lets us see Tina Turner’s complexity without taking us into her faux British accent — befitting a Queen — later years. Maybe when this is remade, we’ll get a look at that chapter of the Tina Odyssey.
By the time this movie came out, Turner had gone MTV, dueted with Mick and Bowie and scored monster hits, evolving into the stadium show superstar and bucket list concert icon she was up to the day she died. Maybe we’ll see that remake some day. But until we do, this version will suffice, leaving us with a strong but suffering Tina and an Ike we won’t ever forget, for reasons good and bad.
Rating: R for domestic violence, strong language, drug use and some sexuality
Cast: Angela Bassett, Laurence Fishburne, Jenifer Lewis, Khandi Alexander, Rob Labelle and Chi McBride.
Credits: Directed by Brian Gibson, scripted by Kate Lanier, based on Tina Turner’s autobiography of the same name. A Touchstone release on Amazon, Tubi, Youtube, Movies! etc.
Running time: 1:58