Tina's TRIUMPH: No Mickey Mouse MOVIE Movie biography tells it like it was

May 31, 1993|By Michael Walker | Michael Walker,Contributing Writer

The Park Plaza hotel in downtown Los Angeles has seen its share of bad acts since Hollywood discovered that its "Arabian Nights"-style ballroom makes a terrific movie set. It was here, for example, that Whitney Houston flung herself at an overstimulated concert audience while Kevin Costner's crew cut turned white in "The Bodyguard."

On this day, the Park Plaza -- choked with synthetic cigarette smoke and 154 extras eating chocolate mousse cake -- is standing in for the Venetian Room at San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel, circa 1980, on a night when a down-on-her-luck Tina Turner brought her disco-and-oldies revue to town.

The scene is one of 11 musical numbers for "What's Love Got to Do With It?" the bio-pic based on Ms. Turner's harrowing autobiography, "I, Tina," to be released by Walt Disney Co.'s Touchstone Pictures in June. Directed by Brian Gibson (who also directed the HBO movie "The Josephine Baker Story"), the film stars Angela Bassett as Ms. Turner and Larry Fishburne as Ike Turner, her ex-husband and former partner.

"This is the absolute bottom of her career," says Mr. Gibson, slouched on a sling chair as Ms. Bassett girds herself for the umpteenth take of -- yes, Ms. Turner actually performed it -- "Disco Inferno."

Mr. Gibson yells, "Action!" and a tuxedoed emcee exhorts the polyester-and-pantsuit extras to welcome "an old-time favorite -- Ms. Tina of the Ike and Tina Turner Revue!" The curtains part; dancers bump and hustle to magnificently cheesy disco choreography.

Then, Ms. Bassett struts into the spotlight, dressed in one of the vampish stage outfits Ms. Turner lent the production. Lip-syncing the song's awful lyrics to Ms. Turner's recorded vocals, Ms. Bassett looks and moves astonishingly like, well, like Tina Turner herself.

But, Ms. Bassett says later, "I'm no imitator or impersonator. The emotional life -- that's my forte. Truth and honesty."

Truth and honesty. With a bio-pic -- especially a rock bio-pic -- these are often highly relative terms. Do you make a squeaky-clean "Buddy Holly Story" and sanitize the star's life? Or do you go the peyote-and-projectile-vomiting route of "The Doors" and bum everybody out with queasy pseudo-realism?

Much of Tina Turner's story isn't pretty. Before fleeing Ike for good in the middle of a 1976 tour and reconstituting herself as a solo cabaret act, Ms. Turner absorbed years of his beatings and flagrant infidelities. Given that "What's Love Got to Do With It?" was made for Disney, a studio hardly known for embracing unvarnished domestic violence, the movie is remarkably frank. To a man, and, in the person of Kate Lanier, the movie's 28-year-old screenwriter, a woman, the filmmakers solemnly swear that the Disney suits didn't try to bowdlerize the story's seedier elements. "They kept saying to me, 'You wrote the first orgasm in Disney history,' " marvels Ms. Lanier.

But the ending's happy

But for all its grim moments -- Ike's beating Tina in a limo; Ike's beating Tina in a recording studio; Ike's beating Tina in their Baldwin Hills bedroom -- "What's Love Got To Do With It?" has, as they say, a considerable upside. Unlike most musical legends whose life stories end up on film, Ms. Turner didn't die in a plane crash ("The Buddy Holly Story"; Patsy Cline in "Sweet Dreams") or extinguish herself with syringefuls of heroin (Billie Holliday in "Lady Sings the Blues"), although at one desperate moment she did attempt suicide.

Instead, Ms. Turner survived and wrote her own happy ending: In the audience at that Fairmont Hotel gig was an Australian artist manager named Roger Davies, who took on Ms. Turner as a client and oversaw the remarkable comeback that culminated in her smash 1984 album, "Private Dancer," which sold 12 million copies and transformed her into a global superstar. Unambiguous against-all-odds stories are treasured in Hollywood, and, alone among its rock-bio-pic predecessors, "What's Love Got to Do With It?" ends with its heroine not only alive but thriving.

"We never envisioned it as a biography," says Doug Chapin, the movie's co-producer, "as much as a very dramatic story of a woman's journey, from being a bright young thing to being caught in a destructive situation and then getting out of it and standing on top of the mountain, really."

Artistic liberties taken

The filmmakers took considerable liberties compressing the 40-odd years of Ms. Turner's life covered in the movie. Several scenes are composites of chronologically distant events, and branches of Ms. Turner's family tree were simply ignored. (The birth of her first son, in 1958, fathered by a musician in Ike's band before she became involved with Ike, is not mentioned.)

"We leave a lot out," acknowledges Mr. Gibson, who won an Emmy for directing "The Josephine Baker Story."

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