Tina turns tumultuous life into 'Love'

MOVIES

June 18, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"What's Love Got to Do With It"

Starring Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne

Directed by Brian Gibson

Rated R

*** 1/2

With a mountain of polyester hair, a voice like melted chocolate cascading over broken glass, and body language that made her seem to throb like a well-lubricated piston, Tina Turner was a sexual and musical icon of the '70s, a Circe whose siren melded the best of black blues and the hottest of white rock. Who could listen and not respond to that call? But who could know that when this proud Mary of a woman left the stage, her old man used to whack the hell out of her?

That twisted story is the substance of "What's Love Got to Do With It," with Angela Bassett as Tina and Laurence Fishburne as Ike. It's an astonishing movie, first because despite the pathology of the relationship, it's not only about victimization; it's a celebration of spirit, both religious and human, about a woman who finally found the guts (and the faith) to say "No more," and went on to invent a new life for herself.

But it's also a clinical examination of a relationship so complex it defies easy explanation: Why didn't she just leave? Because in some way she understood that he created her and that all things came from him, the bad with the good. She couldn't begin to imagine a different life. She had to see herself as an independent human being -- rather than as an extension of his ego and creativity -- before she could leave. For his part, Ike isn't just an arbitrary bully and wife-pounder; though the movie portrays him in all his brutal splendor, it's honest enough to suggest a theory behind his brutality, and to suggest the pain that drove the anger.

But not at the start. In the St. Louis of the late '50s, Ike Turner was quite the man. With his sleepy eyes and unobtrusive but insistent musical genius, he dominated the black club scene and trained a generation of musicians to cross the bridge between black and white worlds. But he himself was thwarted in that ambition until one night a raw young woman just up from the South mounted the smoky stage to hum a few bars -- a gimmick of Ike's band.

When Anna Mae Bullock opened her mouth, Ike knew he'd reached the promised land. Something in her tonalities had such richness and resonance it was a river of grief and pain, yet it hit with the impact of a charge of buckshot. He hired her on Monday, changed her name on Tuesday and married her on Wednesday. They cut their first record on Thursday and were stars by Friday. OK, an exaggeration, but only a bit: It took a couple of years but Ike was a shrewd judge of what America wanted to hear, and in the late '60s a brief window opened in the wake of Elvis' white/black sound, and a number of black groups, including Ike and Tina Turner, broke through to the big time.

In a curious way, the story resonates with echoes of that primal show biz legend, "A Star Is Born." Ike invented Tina and watched as she grew and grew and he himself, in her shadow, shrunk and shrunk. Where's the rest of me, he must have wondered, and these rogue impulses soon transmuted into anger and then horror and finally violence. That which he created had become its own thing, and others yearned to take it from him. The only way he could keep it was by terrorizing it.

Angela Bassett doesn't look a lot like Tina, but she's evidently been pumping all the iron that Arnold Schwarzenegger no longer pumps, because she's turned herself into a proto-Tina, all muscle and on-stage sass. As she leaves Anna Mae behind and transmutes into Tina, she seems to alter her very body. And she's mastered the Turner stage presence, particularly that high-heeled strut that spoke so eloquently to the inchoate millions.

But that's only half the trick. In the horrifying and intimate moments, "What's Love Got to Do With It" completely convinces. One feels these figures as true people, not as stuffed imitation celebrities, and the sense of Ike, like some bitter, dethroned lion-king, lurking menacingly in the background, nursing his wounded ego with cocaine and other women but just waiting to explode gives the movie incredible tension.

Fishburne has always been a wonderful actor, but this Ike is quite a creation. He makes you see the intelligence and the creativity that was unshaped by education but hardened in juke joints and bars. His eyes seethe with intelligence and when he talks, people listen. I think the movie -- about as pro-Tina as can be imagined -- somewhat underplays his genius, but Fishburne on his own communicates it.

And "What's Love Got to Do With It" is one of the few American movies of the last several decades to honestly embrace the issue of faith. In Tina's case, it was a commitment to the verities of Buddhism that gave her the strength and self-knowledge to break free from Ike and sever the horrible push-me-pull-you of the relationship. The movie doesn't give any attitude on this: Tina took her strength where she could find it, and unashamedly she embraces the powers of the new system of belief. So the answer to the question of the title is Nothing. But Faith has everything to do with it.

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