Music and movies have frequently gone together. While cinema loves a good musical, often musicians have tried to make the move to the silver screen, and cinematic stories themselves have tried to capture the life of a musician through works of fiction or Oscar-calibre biopics. For Music in the Movies, Set the Tape will explore musical biopics, the mixed successes of attempts to make musicians movie stars, and tales that revel in the wonder of music and lyrics.
If there is one thing that movies about musicians have in common, it’s the thrill in portraying the art of creating music. From Loretta Lynn’s discovery of her love of singing, to The Doors writing ‘Light my Fire’, or Johnny Cash singing ‘Ring of Fire’ for the first time in Walk the Line, musical biopics, and films in general about musicians, are at their most purely cathartic when the viewer witnesses artists crafting a piece of music that will surely become the hit they will be remembered for.
Even fictional works such as 2018’s version of A Star is Born, or Tom Hanks’ feel-good directorial debut That Thing You Do have moments of a similar ilk, such as the creation of the titular track in the latter, or when we watch Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga’s characters create the instantly iconic ‘Shallow’ in the former.
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What’s Love Got to Do with It charts the rise of Tina Turner’s iconic career, but this is not a biopic to make you feel good, or one that finds instant gratification in the creation of hit songs. The very art of creation becomes something darker in Kate Lanier’s screenplay, which is brought to gut-wrenching life by Brian Gibson’s direction and fully committed performances from Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne.
To see the creation of a song as brilliant as ‘River Deep-Mountain High’ in any other film would be one of those scenes that would revel in having its actors play real-life figures crafting something so rich and brilliant. Instead, it’s a moment that touches upon the darker fringes of emotion. Phil Spector (Rob LaBelle) visits Tina herself but is left having Ike speak on her behalf, while the first time Ike listens to the song, we watch him subtly be confronted by the knowledge that his wife has surpassed him in talent, that he is being left creatively behind. It comes as a moment of concern, given that by this point in the narrative we’ve seen what happens when he reacts to things not going the way he wants them to.
This is a very violent film. It reaches its moment of crescendo and catharsis when it comes to its final act, but the road to that moment for the former Ana Mae Bullock is long, fraught, and never for one moment comes easy. To watch Bassett play Turner is mesmerising, capturing her stage performances and physicality to an unnerving degree. We are then left bereft and heartbroken as the bruises on her face and body are added to. Don’t let its opening scene fool you. The image of the future Tina Turner as a child singing her heart out in church might leave you thinking this will be a feel-good nuts and bolts account of her life, but the film takes a turn thereafter into a tougher, heart-breaking account of domestic violence and life under toxicity.
Unlike Coal Miner’s Daughter’s portrayal of the ups and downs of a marriage that you find yourself rooting for come to the end of the film (despite some problematic moments), Gibson and Lanier position the audience to desperately want Tina Turner to escape her husband’s orbit throughout the majority of its story. There is an element of meet-cute to their first time laying eyes on each other. The film captures the hustle and bustle of Ana Mae’s first time performing with Ike in a crowd-pleasing way, the astonishment of that voice being matched by both Ike himself and the audience.
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However, there is a hustler quality to him, and one can see the cogs running in his mind as he figures out how having a voice like hers is more beneficial to him than anyone else. Those initial, tender steps towards romance are dotted around, but even here the alarm bells are ringing. Right away, their relationship is built on unhealthy ground, given that their first time having sex is shortly after Ike’s girlfriend, and the mother to his children, Lorraine (Penny Johnson Jerald), tries to end her own life. Of course, it’s at this point one must point out the number of creative liberties the film is taking with its portrayal of some of the history here. Tina Turner herself is on the record as being somewhat disappointed with the lack of accuracy to many aspects of the screenplay.
What isn’t in dispute is the level of violence that was at the centre of Tina and Ike Turner’s marriage, and which the film is brutally unflinching in portraying; although Tina Turner herself had issues with the film positioning her in a manner that she believed made her look like a victim more than anything else. Despite taking its cue from the book I, Tina, written by Turner herself and Kurt Loder, the film takes its narrative direction as one documenting its lead character journeying away from a life of violence and abuse.
There is a dread feeling that kicks in right around the point when Fishburne shows up as Ike. He captures the smooth talker that was no doubt capable of turning heads, but the film never allows Fishburne’s performance to remain charming for too long. Before the viewer realises it, a turn has been made towards something more violently dominating.
Sequences depicting domestic violence are amongst some of the most emotionally brutal put to film; the unflinching physical and emotional horror captured so vividly by Gibson’s direction and the work of Bassett and Fishburne that one cannot help but want to look away at various points. As their careers take off, and Tina herself starts to edge away from Ike, his violence towards her becomes more of a brutal response to not being able to keep up with his vastly talented wife. His only way of life becomes drugs and the use of his fists. There is a darkly mesmerising quality to Fishburne and Bassett’s scenes throughout. You don’t want to watch, and yet the commitment of both to their roles is so vivid that unsurprisingly they were nominated for Academy Awards.
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What the film might lack in a more fully produced portrayal of race in America during the 50s and 60s, when the earlier parts of the film take place, it more than makes up for in calling out toxic masculinity. What’s Love Got to do with It has something in common with Coal Miner’s Daughter in that it was directed by a white male British filmmaker with a background in documentaries. The film doesn’t overlook racism, as noted by Ana Mae’s surprise at being taken to a diner that has both black and white patrons mixing, but one cannot help but wonder what an African American filmmaker might have brought to it in that regard. That isn’t to say Gibson doesn’t do a great job, because he does. He has an eye for period detail and brings some lovely visual touches to it when he gives home movie sequences a style reflective of the time. Even more potently, he captures in an unflinching manner the horror of domestic violence and the brutality that Tina faced.
Come to the last act, and the film finds its moment of catharsis and release. As Tina begins a new stage of her career as a rock star, we do not witness a moment of celebration of any particular song or piece of music, but just in watching someone finally achieve an escape from circumstances she didn’t deserve to be caught up in. She never loses her talent or drive to be the best. When, at the end, she finally walks away from Ike for good, leaving him to wander down a dark alley alone as she adorns the stage in a moment of triumph to a cheering audience, it’s a moment that is even more powerful and celebratory than hitting the career heights in the first place.