If nothing else, What’s Love Got to Do With It serves as a reminder that you have to be dead before they can make a good movie about your life. Not only is Tina Turner not dead, her whole latter-day career is built upon the notion of survival, of remaining vibrantly alive in the face of whatever life and Ike Turner could have dished out. Based on Turner’s autobiography I, Tina, and filmed with her cooperation, What’s Love is saddled with a stilted, as-told-to caution. It’s a glorified TV movie — even more so on video — that happens to have great musical numbers and two astounding, Oscar-nominated lead performances.
One of which is troublesome in the extreme. Angela Bassett is a gifted, hard-working actress who, with any justice, has a major career ahead of her. But she is miscast here. Maybe anyone would be; maybe Tina Turner’s mix of sinuous onstage lust and fiery offstage grace can’t be replicated. Looking at old tapes of the Ike and Tina Revue, one is struck by how Tina’s unselfconscious spontaneity — her sense of fun — rolls over Ike’s dumb double entendres and the often misguided cover versions of white rock songs. Bassett’s Tina is a thought-out creation, and that’s a problem.
In her defense, she has to lip-synch the songs to the real Tina’s voice, a jarring technique that severs any link between character and actress the moment Bassett opens her mouth to sing. Someone also convinced the actress to buff her body up with anachronistic muscle tone; you’re distracted by sinew. Given these stumbling blocks, it’s a marvel that she does in fact create a Tina Turner for whom you root, especially in the private battle against the husband who beats her up, body and soul. Laurence Fishburne, as Ike, has it easier — he just has to make us hate the guy. That he humanizes him is unexpected gravy. But Bassett, in the face of ridiculous odds, gets you to understand both the terror and the sick dependence of an abused wife.
Sadly, the filmmakers break out the hook in the epilogue, by cutting to the real Turner belting out the title song in concert. The reasoning, I guess, is to pump up the climactic triumph by rewarding us with the genuine article, but it has the effect of pushing Bassett back to the chorus line. It feels wrong.
So does much of the movie. The problems include the usual biopic sins: dates moved around, lovers deleted, many characters conflated into one. Then there are the clichéd dialogue and Stanley Clarke’s hackneyed musical score (seemingly cloned from Eric Clapton’s music for Rush). Most damaging, by choosing to focus on Ike and Tina’s domestic horror story, What’s Love veers away from the larger cultural context in which their joint career rose and fell. The important songs are delivered with tightly arranged spunk (they miss one goody, though: ”I Idolize You,” a creepy, 1961 minor-key slice o’ neurosis penned by Ike), but after a kickass roadhouse scene setting up the R&B supremacy of Ike’s Kings of Rhythm, the movie takes place in a hellish vacuum. Maybe that’s how it seemed to Tina, but wouldn’t some perspective have helped?
For that, one must go to the videotapes, on which Tina Turner’s career is amply represented. But those movies and concert films are irrevocably changed by what we now know happened when the cameras weren’t rolling. It’s hard to watch Gimme Shelter and not cringe at Tina’s orgasmic byplay with a microphone during ”I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” knowing that Ike choreographed it over his embarrassed wife’s objections. It’s hard to watch the soul-stars-go-to-Ghana concert documentary Soul to Soul and not laugh at Ike’s Afro wig or wonder why Tina barely cracks a smile throughout (Wilson Pickett, conversely, seems delighted to be performing ”Land of 1,000 Dances” in the land of 1,000 dances). And it’s hard to watch the 1966 all-star concert The Big T.N.T. Show — available on tape with the similar T.A.M.I. Show under the title Chuck Berry Hosts: Born to Rock — and not shiver when Tina asks the mostly white, teenage crowd, ”If there’s anybody in this house that’s ever been hurt, I want to hear you sing out!”
The best place to get the missing perspective is in Tina Turner: The Girl from Nutbush, a British-made clipshow that combines wonderful rare footage (Ike and the Kings of Rhythm on a late-’50s TV show called Party Time at the Club Imperial, Phil Spector inducting the couple into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) with some jaw-dropping interviews (how about California State prisoner E48678, a.k.a. Ike Turner?) before swerving into a deadening series of late-’80s concert numbers. About half an hour too long, Nutbush at least lets Tina Turner speak for herself. Her easy yet assertive candidness does something that all of What’s Love‘s lumpy good intentions cannot. It makes you a fan. What’s Love Got to Do With It: C+ Gimme Shelter: B+ Soul to Soul: C+ Born to Rock: A- The Girl From Nutbush: B+