Tina Turner is the heroine of What's Love Got to Do With It. The dramatic sequences in the rock siren's film bio hammer home the point that Turner (formerly Anna Mae Bullock from Nutbush, Tennessee) overcame huge odds and years of physical abuse to become the international megastar that she is today. After seeing this movie, you won't begrudge her one penny of her wealth or one word of her acclaim.
The Sixties and Seventies wardrobes and hairstyles are a joy to behold in all their indulgent, foppish splendor, especially now that those same trends are back in vogue. And the musical segments are eye-openers (ear-openers?). It's a delicious treat to revisit Turner classics like "Nutbush City Limits," "River Deep, Mountain High," and "Proud Mary." They don't write 'em like that anymore.
But the ironic thing about the screen treatment of Tina Turner's life story is that the star is her ex-husband Ike. The wife-beating, coke-snorting, skirt-chasing guitarist emerges as a character of epic proportions, a force of nature as incorrigible and as colorful in his own way as Tina is in hers. Maybe even more so.
Chalk one up for Laurence Fishburne, whose bravura acting turns a cartoon villain into an enigma. He cannot make Ike likable, so he goes one better A he makes him bigger than life. Fishburne is sublime in the role, whether brooding in the shadows, menacing in the dressing room, or slipping into a napping Tina's bedroom to slide a token gift under the covers in a pathetically misguided attempt to apologize for beating her.
Fishburne's involvement is a godsend, because the filmmakers obviously never got a handle on Ike's character. Two nagging omissions constantly threaten to subvert this celluloid retelling of Tina's tale: why did Ike, who begins the film courtly and respectful, going so far as to ask her mother's permission for Tina/Anna Mae to join his band, become a monster, and, once he did, why did Tina put up with his crap for so long?
Somewhere along the line from Nutbush to Hollywood, Ike and Tina's relationship degenerated from storybook romance into textbook abuse. Was the explanation simple jealousy, Ike's out-of-control ego preventing him from graciously accepting his wife's success? Was it the cocaine? Or was Ike, in the words of one family member trying to comfort Tina as she watched her husband openly flirt with one of her friends, "just being a man"? Viewers can venture an educated guess, but a better movie would have made it clear. Luckily, Fishburne steps into the void, imbuing Ike with just enough self-awareness to make him human but not enough to make him change.
As for Tina's willingness to grimace and bear it for so long, it's not uncommon for victims of abuse to blame themselves, or to make pathetic excuses for their abusers' behavior. Tina fit that pattern. But What's Love Got to Do With It takes it all to such absurd extremes A Tina blubbering about Ike's being under a lot of pressure after he's beaten the tar out of her for the umpteenth time A that you start wondering if, deep down in some dark corner of her soul, she might not have had a masochistic streak. (Fishburne had his own working thesis concerning Ike's appeal. The actor told Rolling Stone, "He was a great cocksman.")
Angela Bassett is very good as Tina -- she doesn't look much like the singer (her arms are too muscular and her legs are too wiry), but she has the stage mannerisms down and she lip-synchs expertly. She adds subtlety and color to her characterization of the diva off-stage, as well, although she occasionally overdoes the noble victim shtick. But even Bassett's best is not good enough to make Tina's sudden, out-of-left-field conversion to Buddhism less laughable.
Perhaps Bassett's portrayal just suffers in comparison to Fishburne's. She never quite nails the Tina character the way Fishburne nails Ike. His rendering seems effortless and fluid, hers feels like work -- strong work, but work just the same.