Working for a man every night and day, Tina Turner is a soul survivor in this powerful story of emotional lows, musical highs
WHAT’S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT (R) is a knock-out: a splashy, volatile, crowd- pleasing rock-star melodrama that makes up in sheer emotional wallop what it sometimes lacks in finesse. Adapted from Tina Turner’s autobiography, this portrait of her hellish marriage to Ike Turner, the St. Louis blues-rock innovator who launched her to fame and then kept trying to knock her down, is like A Star Is Born remade for the dysfunctional age.
The movie is far from perfect — it has the kind of clunky, episodic script that has bedeviled just about every musical biopic in history — yet it’s driven by an electrifying soundtrack and by two performances of staggering power. What’s Love Got to Do With It presents Tina Turner as martyr-saint, as survivor, and as a true artist who delivered an ecstatic jolt to black pop music from within the prison of her marriage. At the beginning, the teenage Anna Mae Bullock (Angela Bassett) — who has yet to be christened with her stage name — arrives in St. Louis to move in with her mother, who abandoned her as a little girl. It’s 1958, and Anna Mae, in her Sunday-go-to-church dresses, seems a caricature of a ’50s nice girl: demure, naive, sugar-sweet. She undergoes a transformation, though, when she ventures down to the Club Royale to hear Ike Turner and his revue.
Tall, with suavely conked hair and the devil’s eyes, Ike (Laurence Fishburne) is a low-down sexy bluesman as elegant as a Continental aristocrat. When he passes a microphone around the club, Anna Mae grabs it and launches into a mid-tempo blues number, and her singing is a ballistic shock. Somehow, her voice blends a woman’s softness with a man’s libidinous thrust; it’s at once hot and metallic, the notes all but scraped from her gut. Her sweat-soaked delivery is a bit puzzling, though, since it doesn’t link up with anything in her goody two- shoes personality. What’s Love works so hard to turn Anna Mae into a flawless innocent — she isn’t allowed to say so much as a dirty word — that she doesn’t seem quite there. Seduced by Ike’s musicianship and velvet-voiced charm, Anna Mae agrees to join his Kings of Rhythm tour as a lead singer.
A gifted but ferociously driven man, Ike is obsessed with turning his sprightly blend of rock and soul into the next big thing. Everyone in the band, even Anna Mae (now Tina), is just an element in his master plan. His abuses start small — at a rehearsal, he berates Tina for not singing ”tough” enough — but as the two become romantically involved, and then married, their musical success heightening the stakes, he begins to commit shocking cruelties. He drags Tina out of a hospital bed in the middle of the night so she can go back on tour. Later, during the glitzy ’70s, when he’s strung out on coke, he beats her, smashes a cake in her face, and at one point rapes her into submission.
Explosively charismatic, Fishburne navigates every scary nuance of Ike’s raging soul. He never once softens the character — by the end, the very sight of Ike gives us chills — yet he shows us the demon-haunted logic of a man who feels shut out of the very success he so craves. For most of the film, Tina doesn’t cross Ike or disobey his will; with terror-struck humility, she swallows his insults, womanizing, and drug-addled rages. What’s Love has a blunt, repetitive structure: Essentially, it’s one victimization scene after another. Yet the paradox of the movie is that it’s only as Tina slips into her painful role as Ike’s star/slave that she begins to come alive as a character. Bassett has an emotional presence as powerfully coiled as her anachronistically pumped-up physique. With her flat cheeks and toothy smile, she evokes Turner’s radiant sultriness, and she brings out the singer’s drive and tremulous vulnerability; before long, we’re experiencing Tina’s passive nightmare as if we were inside her skin.
As the movie portrays it, Tina Turner found her soul, her identity, as the wife of a monster and therefore couldn’t bring herself to leave. Strutting around on stage in her high heels, white-girl wig, and pornographically short skirt, Bassett, lip-synching to recordings, captures the erotic youthquake that was Tina Turner in the ’60s and early ’70s. Performing such songs as ”Shake a Tail Feather,” ”Proud Mary,” and Phil Spector’s transcendently grandiose ”River Deep, Mountain High,” she reveals the wholeheartedness — the smiling celebration — that was the emotional foundation of Turner’s brash, quivering-thighed sexiness. As great as the numbers are, though, a part of me almost wanted to cry during some of them. Here was a performer whose concert presence was the essence of volcanic feminine liberation. Yet off stage she was living in chains. As the movie tells it, it wasn’t enough for Tina to leave Ike. To break free, she had to be able to look into his eyes without fear. When she finally does, it’s a triumph to savor. A-