by MP Bartley
What is the mark of a great biopic? Some would say it's how the actor gets the impersonation of the subject over. Some grade it on how the film gets over all their many achievements. But for me, it's if the film can make you care about the person regardless of what they're famous for. 'What's Love Got To Do With It' succeeds on this part massively: I don't particularly care for her music, but I was nevertheless enthralled by the life of Annie Mae Bullock. Or, as we know her best, Tina Turner.Annie Mae (Angela Basset) is brought up in a strict restrictive household, but there's one thing that makes her stand out in a crowd. And that's her distinctive voice, huge and passionate that belies both her size and her years. It's a voice that brings her to the attention of Ike Turner (Laurence Fishburne), a band leader and song writer, who is looking for something new and raw that will make him famous. And more importantly, rich.
"A better title than 'Private Dancer' at any rate."
Annie Mae fits his needs perfectly and she is brought in as the new singer of his band, and eventually his wife, with a total name change. But Ike has more to his character than a knack for churning out memorable hits; he's also a brute with a taste for drugs and drink, and for handing out violence and worse to Annie when he's displeased.
I've noted above that, aside from the early 60's stuff, I'm not a huge fan of Tina Turner's music. And, at first glance, 'What's Love Got To Do With It', is nothing more than a standard biopic. It follows the plot points you would expect it to - rise, fall, punishment, self-empowerment - and doesn't really take you anywhere unexpected. Indeed, it flirts dangerously close to the domain of tv movies sometimes, with the music (ironically) being particularly bad, full of slide guitar solos and bad blues music, when not focusing on the music that Ike and Tina produced, while a final scene of Ike brandishing a gun feels forced and ludicrous (I'll hold my hands up here and profess to not knowing if it was a real incident or not).
But what pulls it away from the brink of utter mediocrity are mainly two stellar performances. Basset has clearly done her homework here, as she whirls around the stage like a dervish, imitating Tina's moves perfectly. But her performance is much more than mere impersonation, it's a performance full of hurt and collapsed dignity as she starts off like a cowed and wounded animal. Essentially sold to Ike by her guardian, she fares no better under Ike's iron fist. Basset completely sells the pain and crushed joy that's within Annie, before she finally snaps and stand up for herself. It's a performance that captivates utterly and will get you cheering her on by the end. When she finally hits Ike back for the first time, it was all I could do to not yell out "Yeah! You go sista!".
And as Ike, Fishburne also gives a hypnotic performance, swaying dangerously between urbane charm and terrifying violence. Fishburne makes no bones in showing Ike as a brute and a monster, but crucially, also shows enough surface humanity to convince us just why Annie Mae would fall under his spell. And there's a terrific moment when Phil Spector turns up after a gig to announce that he wants to record a song with Annie. Fishburne's reaction when he realises that he is not part of the deal, is a marvellous bit of understated acting, all done without words.
Brian Gibson's direction and Kate Ternier's screenplay is smart enough to realise that for 'What's Love Got To Do With It' to connect home, the focus has to be on the characters, and not the music. As one of the great art forms, music is also one of the great unknowables - it's pretty much impossible to accurately depict where the inspiration and talent for song-writing comes from. Instead, we have an unflinching look at the violence that Ike casually deals, and we are spared few details in a film that is sobering and difficult to watch at times. There's an intense scene that will last long in the memory, when, after Annie and the backing singers improvise an aspect of their preformance, Ike storms in and demands to know whose idea it was. There's a brief pause before Annie owns up, and Ike bursts into huge smile, as he loves the idea. But even though he's pleased, we're as relieved as Annie that he's not angry and lashing out, as he could have easily done. It's a small scene, but one ripe with tension, as we genuinely don't know how Ike is feeling and we fear the worst, just like Annie. It's superbly directed and acted with underlying fierceness by Fishburne.If any critic were to make a list of great biopics, there'd be a great deal of discussion as to what would make the list and why it should merit inclusion. Should something like 'Gandhi' be included because of the importance of the person? Or what about 'Ray' because of its central performance? But 'Whats Love Got To Do With It' should always make the list, simply because it takes the one great performance of 'Ray' and multiplies it by two. At the end of the film, you may not be converted into a Tina Turner music fan, but it'd be a hard and cynical person indeed, not to begrudge her a whole lot of respect at the very least.
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originally posted: 10/31/05 10:51:15