What's Love Got to Do With it
1993, R, 118 min. Directed by Brian Gibson. Starring Angela Bassett, Laurence Fishburne, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Rae'Ven Kelly, Jennifer Lewis, Phyllis Yvonne Stickney.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., June 18, 1993
Though Tina Turner's been trying to break into movies for a while now, Hollywood has never known quite what to do with her, casting her solely as caricatures be they Mad Max arch-villains or rock opera Acid Queens. Turner had to pen an autobiography, I, Tina to finally get star treatment in Tinseltown. And then, they really only wanted the story, not the magnetic Turner herself. It's a perfect story for our time, the kind we've recently grown very attached to -- a survivor's tale. Turner's story is one of the triumph of spirit and talent over the economic and emotional impoverishments of childhood, over early marriage and motherhood, over a stormy and abusive marriage, and over early career success and an amazing rock & roll reincarnation at an age when most people with any sense know that they're over the hill. It also is the story of how a girl who, by following her own instincts, discovers her own inner strengths. (That path also leads to her discovery of Buddhism which, in turn, leads to a whole lot of chanting -- there's more Buddhist chanting in this movie than you can shake a former Southern Baptist choir girl at.) What really makes this movie work, however, are the performances. Bassett and Fishburne (who have worked together as husband and wife once before in Boyz N the Hood) both nail their characters so perfectly that any quibbles we might have with physical resemblances vanish summarily. It is a tribute to their talents that each of them manages to take a role that odds makers would have foredoomed to failure and gotten inside their character's skin. Bassett creates a better-than-believable illusion of the singularly kinetic Turner; the mannerisms, the costumes, the riveting moves are all picture-perfect despite the fact that her physical features are less than identical. Fishburne, to his credit, locates the many dimensions of Ike Turner, opening up the character from the brutish, wife-beating villain that the story demands to reveal the visionary bandleader, the shrewd showman, the gifted songwriter, the overshadowed Svengali, the R&B soulman caught in the dust of the British invasion. The movie certainly never slacks off on the abuse (all the agonizing hitting and fighting is practically its raison d'etre). That the character of Ike Turner can emerge from this confessional with any dignity intact, is testament to Fishburne's skills. When onstage, Bassett and Fishburne create performances (aided by Tina Turner's overdubbed vocals) that rouse the movie theatre audience to enthusiastic applause. It makes an implicit insult of the ending of What's Love Got To Do With It (and, by the way, am I the only one irked by the lack of a question mark in the movie's title?) in which Bassett's performance of the title song dissolves into the real Tina Turner singing the song. It's unnecessary and comes across as an unfounded lack of confidence in Bassett. It's especially annoying in light of the movie's fine opening sequences. Two quickly glimpsed childhood events set the stage for the dramas that mark the diva's adult life: abandonment by her family and getting booted from the church choir for her presciently bravura rendition of “This little light of mine, I'm going to make it shine.” The movie makes us all want to stand up and cheer, “Shine on, Tina. Shine on.”