Cora Lee Day
1 Hr., 58 Mins.
What's Love Got to Do with It / Waiting to Exhale November 6, 2018
2 Hrs., 6 Mins.
As Anna Mae ages, it seems that she is happiest when she's singing — possibly because her vocal talent is one of the few things in her life that she can, and will come to be able to, control. Shortly after the rehearsal, she learns that her mother has skipped town, and has pointedly taken her older sister, Aillene, with her. Later, in East St. Louis, when Anna Mae is about 17 years old, she will meet the musician Ike Turner, who is still performing with his band, the Kings of Rhythm. She will fall in love with him, and become his professional partner and wife.
By 1960, Anna Mae will start going by Tina Turner — a name thrust on her by her new spouse — and become a subject of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. It will not be until 1976 — the year of her and Ike’s separation — that she will learn how to be an artist, and a woman, really, on her own terms.
This is the timeline What’s Love Got to Do with It, an unflinching biographical film from 1993, follows; it ends around the time its protagonist released Private Dancer (1984). Anna Mae, then Tina, is played by Angela Bassett, who gives a by-turns palpably anguished and delectably electric performance; Ike is portrayed by the pugilistic Laurence Fishburne, who is scary and searing. The movie is an adaptation of I, Tina, an autobiography from 1986, and was written by Kate Lanier and directed by Brian Gibson, with biopic-style conformity.
What’s Love Got to Do with It is a true-blue show-biz melodrama. But unlike spiritual siblings like Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980) or Sweet Dreams (1985), it never basks in the glory of a recreated personal or professional high: everything is so underscored in abuse that even its rare pleasures leave a mark. When Bassett’s Tina prances around the stage with thrilling phlegm, we never forget that, if Tina doesn’t prance around the stage in such a manner, the repercussions could be dire once she walks off. The singer’s performative persona, unbridled and fearless, was certainly an extension of herself, but it was, more prominently, staunchly controlled by terror and denial.
What’s Love Got to Do with It additionally makes for a by-and-large, potent indictment of the music industry, and our consumptive habits. Even if the vast majority of entertainers are not subjected to the kind of savagery its heroine endured for almost 20 years, all popular artists are exploited in some fashion; we are also reminded to ruminate on how much of the art we savor is connected to something corrupt and immoral.
Ultimately, this a story of survival, and conquering in the face of nightmarish circumstances. The movie is a showcase for Bassett, too: she gives one of her best, if not her best, performances here. But we are supposed to walk away not only thinking about how much of Tina Turner’s discography is covered in blood and bruises, but also how many stories like hers — ones which don’t involve explosive musical talent and a ubiquitous brand of celebrity — unravel every day without consequences.
small but fierce little girl named Anna Mae Bullock is rehearsing with her church’s choir when we meet her for the first time. She is clearly the centerpiece, and not just because she’s standing in the front row. She acts like an experienced, pampered superstar, almost unconsciously straying from the orthodoxies of the music. Verses and choruses are interrupted by little hiccups and ticks; certain words become melismatic exercises.
n Waiting to Exhale (1995), a comedic soap opera set in Phoenix, Arizona, Bassett again plays a character who has seen much of her life dictated by a man. Much of that dictation, though, is limited, at least literally, to the first act. Early in the film, Bassett, who portrays a comfortable hausfrau named Bernie, is told by her entrepreneur husband, John (Michael Beach), that he plans to leave her for his secretary. Once their impending divorce is finalized, their posh mansion on the outskirts of town will be hers — but
full custody of their children cannot be promised.
Shortly after this reveal, while John is at work, Bernie has an understandable outburst. It’s so excessive, however, you might guess, without context, that she was recreating a scene found in an unusually florid Danielle Steel novel. In a fury, Bernie storms into her husband’s closet, bunches up his clothing, and proceeds to stuff them into his car, along with a mishmash of other personal items.
Blustering orchestral music, which would usually accompany a sequence so blowy, doesn’t play in the background. Instead, Bernie, to no one in particular, starts tearily sermonizing her personal history. “I got a master’s degree in business, and there I was, his secretary,” she relates as she gallops around the house. Then, she angrily chronicles how she gave up her professional dreams in the name of love. “‘No, Bernadine, you can’t start the catering business this year,’” she says, in character as her philandering spouse. “'Why don’t you wait a few years, huh? Yeah, don’t start it right now — wait one, two, three years.’” The sequence climaxes with Bernie drizzling gasoline over John’s belongings. She lights a cigarette, then tosses the match — along with the cigarette — on the pile. She walks away, satisfied. This feeling, as we'll learn, will be temporary.
Waiting to Exhale, which details the personal and professional troubles of Bernie and three of her best girlfriends — Vannah (Whitney Houston), Glo (Loretta Devine), and Robin (Lela Rochon) — is made up of scenes like this: ones which are overblown, at moments bafflingly written, but strangely fulfilling.
There is a moment toward the end of the film, for instance, when Vannah, a television producer in her 30s, cathartically blows up at her married lover (Dennis Haysbert) at lunch. After revealing that his wife is pregnant, he unscrupulously tells Vannah that she is the most important thing in his life. It is here that she snaps out of whatever lovelorn stupor that has kept her with him for this long.
“The drinks are on you,” Vannah says just before chucking her lover’s martini into his lap. There is another emotionally similar moment when Robin has a spat with one of her drunk toy boys; he yawps from the front lawn, while she, cool and resplendent in an orange sundress, tells him off from the balcony.
Waiting to Exhale, directed by Forest Whitaker and adapted from the novel of the same name by Terry McMillian and Ronald Bass, careens between subplots concerning the friends. Usually, they have to do with their clamorous love lives, which are often either scarred by loser man-children or married hunks who have no intention of leaving their wives.
The film should be dripping with righteous anger, or, at the very least, dagger-sharp, battle-of-the-sexes-like farcicality. But Waiting to Exhale entails our protagonists predominantly slosh around in their misery; there are far more scenes orbiting around their individual frustrations — all of which are precariously and sensationally written — than there are ones devoted to them enjoying each other’s company.
Waiting to Exhale eventually reasons that if you’re professionally satisfied, and if you have a strong group of friends, romance does not have to be a preeminent concern. But the movie also clocks somewhere north of two hours, and the empowerment stuff is practically nonexistent in comparison to the peaked, rather frustrating romantic melodrama flagrant everywhere else. A shame: the four leads, all very good in lieu of the tumbledown material, are terrific when together.
What's Love Got to Do with It: B+
Waiting to Exhale: C