Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The recent Jersey Boys and Get On Up have us thinking back on better biopics about musicians.
What’s Love Got To Do With It (1993)
The first scene or two of Brian Gibson’s 1993 Tina Turner film, What’s Love Got To Do With It, portend two hours’ worth of paint-by-numbers, dime-a-dozen musician biopic, a formula so familiar everyone knows the steps by heart. But then two elements appear that save the movie from its amalgamation of rock-film clichés and the hackneyed redemption arc that is certainly in the offing: Bandleader Ike Turner shows up, and there’s the first musical performance. This is what pushes the film past its Lifetime movie leanings and the Buddhism recruitment infomercial tendencies.
Narratively, this is supposed to be the story of how young Anna Mae Bullock from Nutbush, Tennessee became arena-packing Tina Turner, but Love is rescued by the fearless performances of its two lead actors, Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne. Though Bassett’s task is considerable—she has to mature convincingly as she portrays a naïve teenager, then an abused wife, then a take-no-prisoners seasoned vet—Fishburne may have the tougher job. He has to morph from sweet-talking puppetmaster into full-out ghoul convincingly, the charm and the menace equally believable. Make no mistake: This movie is based on Tina’s autobiography, I, Tina, and Ike Turner is without a doubt the film’s villain.
Each act just ratchets up the nightmarish existence Tina lived. Ike goes from using his compliments to manipulate young Anna Mae to punching the living shit out of Tina Turner whenever she dares to step out of line by becoming more successful than her husband. But it eventually becomes evident she’s the magical ingredient that is sending The Ike & Tina Turner Revue up the charts. And the hits (both types) keep coming. Plagued by her own abandonment issues, Anna vows early on that she will never leave Ike.
Love doesn’t escape every musical-biopic pitfall: It tidies up a lot of inconvenient facts so that they fit into a simpler chronology. (Tina’s first son was with a saxophonist in Ike’s band, not the bandleader. Ike and Tina’s Tijuana wedding happened a few years later, not after sneaking a seriously ill Tina out of a maternity ward.) Drug use becomes a kind of shorthand to explain actions and motivations. But tucked into this spousal-abuse redemption story is also a solid starter course covering 25 years in American pop music. From the first blues boogie in the St. Louis club, to the energetic R&B of “A Fool In Love,” to the dance-craze courting “Shake A Tail Feather,” to the Phil Spector spectacular “River Deep, Mountain High,” to the rock reworking of “Proud Mary,” to the synth-happy “What’s Love Got To Do With It,” Tina Turner was there for it all.
These dazzling performance scenes do a great job of presenting the dichotomy of the movie, mimicking the duplicitous life Tina led for close to two decades. They also serve to present an additional, probably intentional, layer of irony, considering the aggressiveness of Turner’s performance style and the athleticism of the lead actress. (Bassett’s biceps are truly a sight to behold in this film. They basically deserve their own billing.) After watching the intensely violent onscreen fights and a truly horrific marital rape scene, one has to wonder why, in a song supposedly about Beyoncé and Jay Z’s marital bliss, the latter would ever want to be “Ike Turner turnt up,” demanding that his bride “eat the cake, Anna Mae.”
Those fight scenes don’t get easier to watch with multiple viewings. The punches really seem as if they’re landing, and the post-fight makeup on Bassett is almost too realistic. But the message here is clear: While “Tina Turner” may have been an invented persona Ike came up with for the singer in his band, Ike did not create Tina Turner. She did that.
Availability: What’s Love Got To Do With It is available on DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix or your local video store, or to rent or purchase through the major digital services.