blogging by Andrew Wickliffe

What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993, Brian Gibson)

Not counting the ill-advised, if still not wholly unwelcome epilogue, What’s Love Got to Do with It ends about ten years before the film came out. Love’s a biopic of Tina Turner (played by Angela Bassett except for the adorable then rending prologue), almost entirely focusing on her time with Ike Turner (Laurence Fishburne). Just present action, Love covers twenty-five-ish years.

Most of the time is spent in the fifties and sixties, as locally successful musician Fishburne makes it big when Bassett becomes his singer. Bassett’s a country girl moved to the big city (St. Louis), reuniting with the mother who abandoned her (Jenifer Lewis, whose disappearance is another of the film’s problems) and big sister Phyllis Yvonne Stickney. Who also disappears. Lots of disappearing characters in Love.

There are very few bad performances in Love. They’re uniformly white men too. First, Rob LaBelle shows up as Phil Spector, and he’s risibly godawful, then James Reyne is even worse as comeback Tina’s manager. On the one hand, the movie’s biggest problem is not tracking Bassett post-divorce and into her significant eighties success (forty-something Black woman recreating her career and stardom). On the other, Reyne’s so terrible. I don’t know if the movie could’ve sustained him.

They would have had to do some really good performance scenes.

The best things about Love are Bassett, Fishburne, and the musical performance scenes. Bassett’s got a fabulous stage presence (and lip-synching). But the music rarely matters. Love is the Tina Turner story (as of 1992) and, at that time, it still involved (at least in the public consciousness) Ike, which turns Love into a movie about a manipulated and groomed young woman (a characterization Turner disputed) suffering for twenty-some years before showing up the dangerous loser sociopath she’d kept famous.

Except part of the Tina Turner story is she’s badass. Once Bassett gets to the badass stage—even if it’s badass Buddhist (something else the film’s got a peculiar handle on, Tina’s spirituality)—the movie’s not just over; it’s so over, it brings in the real Turner for a musical number, a jiggle, and a wink. Besides knowing Bassett and Fishburne were great in the movie, one of the only other things I knew was Turner gets to finish out the movie, effectively erasing Bassett from the film’s memory. It’s a complicated situation, to be sure, and it probably could’ve been done well, but definitely not by director Gibson.

Gibson’s exceptionally bland. There’s no aspect of the film he appears interested in, which is strange since there are so many possibilities. It’s set during the Golden Age of Rock ‘n Roll (for a while). Gibson’s not interested. It’s about the transition into the Sixties. Gibson’s not interested.

Technically, the best scenes are the musical numbers. They’re where editor Stuart H. Pappé does his best cutting. Pappé occasionally will have bad cuts in other scenes (mainly towards the front), but the musical numbers are great. Even if the film doesn’t really tie them to the narrative. Love will do things like fold three years into three sequential scenes with nothing about the passage of time, so it’s not surprising the musical sequences are disconnected. Love buries the lede on Fishburne being physically abusive to Bassett for added dramatic emphasis, which is one heck of a move but also not surprising.

Like I said, the movie’s half as long as it ought to be—Bassett thriving away from Fishburne ought to be the story—but given what they do with the few scenes in that era (and the casting), it might not actually help the film. Not with the same creatives behind the camera, anyway.

Jamie Anderson’s cinematography is usually Touchstone Bland, but he does have a few really well-lighted scenes. Good production design from Stephen Altman and costumes from Ruth E. Carter. Stanley Clarke’s score is indescribably horrendous. Just a different score might be enough to pull Love up.

Vanessa Bell Calloway (as Bassett’s only friend) and Lewis are the best supporting performances. No one in Bassett and Fishburne’s entourage is bad (Chi McBride, Khandi Alexander, and Penny Johnson Jerald have the most significant parts), but they’re playing caricatures.

Even with its Touchstone-y constraints, Love ought to be better. Bassett, Fishburne, and Turner deserve it. Not Ike Turner, though. He was a piece of shit (and the scenes Fishburne had the producers add to “humanize” abusive Ike make him more obviously a sociopathic predator, so Fishburne being outstanding isn’t not problematic). Turner herself made some very astute observations about the film’s framing of Bassett as a victim (which a better second half would’ve helped, though it seems like it’s foundational).

So, very unfortunately, Love’s a mixed bag. Great acting—Bassett’s mesmerizing—can’t make up for an alternately vapid and bland (albeit not incompetent—except that score) production.

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