The Park Plaza hotel in downtown Los Angeles has seen its share of bad acts since Hollywood discovered that its "Arabian Nights"-style ballroom makes a terrific movie set. It was here, for example, that Whitney Houston flung herself at an overstimulated concert audience while Kevin Costner's crew cut turned white in "The Bodyguard."
On this day, the Park Plaza -- choked with synthetic cigarette smoke and 154 extras eating chocolate mousse cake -- is standing in for the Venetian Room at San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel, circa 1980, on a night when a down-on-her-luck Tina Turner brought her disco-and-oldies revue to town.
The scene is one of 11 musical numbers for "What's Love Got to Do With It?" the bio-pic based on Ms. Turner's harrowing autobiography, "I, Tina," to be released by Walt Disney Co.'s Touchstone Pictures in June. Directed by Brian Gibson (who also directed the HBO movie "The Josephine Baker Story"), the film stars Angela Bassett as Ms. Turner and Larry Fishburne as Ike Turner, her ex-husband and former partner.
"This is the absolute bottom of her career," says Mr. Gibson, slouched on a sling chair as Ms. Bassett girds herself for the umpteenth take of -- yes, Ms. Turner actually performed it -- "Disco Inferno."
Mr. Gibson yells, "Action!" and a tuxedoed emcee exhorts the polyester-and-pantsuit extras to welcome "an old-time favorite -- Ms. Tina of the Ike and Tina Turner Revue!" The curtains part; dancers bump and hustle to magnificently cheesy disco choreography.
Then, Ms. Bassett struts into the spotlight, dressed in one of the vampish stage outfits Ms. Turner lent the production. Lip-syncing the song's awful lyrics to Ms. Turner's recorded vocals, Ms. Bassett looks and moves astonishingly like, well, like Tina Turner herself.
But, Ms. Bassett says later, "I'm no imitator or impersonator. The emotional life -- that's my forte. Truth and honesty."
Truth and honesty. With a bio-pic -- especially a rock bio-pic -- these are often highly relative terms. Do you make a squeaky-clean "Buddy Holly Story" and sanitize the star's life? Or do you go the peyote-and-projectile-vomiting route of "The Doors" and bum everybody out with queasy pseudo-realism?
Much of Tina Turner's story isn't pretty. Before fleeing Ike for good in the middle of a 1976 tour and reconstituting herself as a solo cabaret act, Ms. Turner absorbed years of his beatings and flagrant infidelities. Given that "What's Love Got to Do With It?" was made for Disney, a studio hardly known for embracing unvarnished domestic violence, the movie is remarkably frank. To a man, and, in the person of Kate Lanier, the movie's 28-year-old screenwriter, a woman, the filmmakers solemnly swear that the Disney suits didn't try to bowdlerize the story's seedier elements. "They kept saying to me, 'You wrote the first orgasm in Disney history,' " marvels Ms. Lanier.
But the ending's happy
But for all its grim moments -- Ike's beating Tina in a limo; Ike's beating Tina in a recording studio; Ike's beating Tina in their Baldwin Hills bedroom -- "What's Love Got To Do With It?" has, as they say, a considerable upside. Unlike most musical legends whose life stories end up on film, Ms. Turner didn't die in a plane crash ("The Buddy Holly Story"; Patsy Cline in "Sweet Dreams") or extinguish herself with syringefuls of heroin (Billie Holliday in "Lady Sings the Blues"), although at one desperate moment she did attempt suicide.
Instead, Ms. Turner survived and wrote her own happy ending: In the audience at that Fairmont Hotel gig was an Australian artist manager named Roger Davies, who took on Ms. Turner as a client and oversaw the remarkable comeback that culminated in her smash 1984 album, "Private Dancer," which sold 12 million copies and transformed her into a global superstar. Unambiguous against-all-odds stories are treasured in Hollywood, and, alone among its rock-bio-pic predecessors, "What's Love Got to Do With It?" ends with its heroine not only alive but thriving.
"We never envisioned it as a biography," says Doug Chapin, the movie's co-producer, "as much as a very dramatic story of a woman's journey, from being a bright young thing to being caught in a destructive situation and then getting out of it and standing on top of the mountain, really."
Artistic liberties taken
The filmmakers took considerable liberties compressing the 40-odd years of Ms. Turner's life covered in the movie. Several scenes are composites of chronologically distant events, and branches of Ms. Turner's family tree were simply ignored. (The birth of her first son, in 1958, fathered by a musician in Ike's band before she became involved with Ike, is not mentioned.)
"We leave a lot out," acknowledges Mr. Gibson, who won an Emmy for directing "The Josephine Baker Story."
"If someone lives 60 years, let's say -- Tina's lived 50-plus years -- you've got two minutes a year. But a drawing of someone's face, even if it has only seven lines, if it's done by a really good artist, that person's caught a truth by making certain choices. You take line through a life, like the theme of desertion. Is that important to Tina's life? I would say yes. So you emphasize it in terms of which scenes you develop."
Ms. Turner herself is apparently resigned to the film's factual deviations, although throughout the project's lengthy development she made it clear she would not sanction a puff piece. "Disney?" Ms. Turner recalls the conventional wisdom after Touchstone purchased the rights to the "I, Tina" book. "Drugs and violence? They don't do that kind of work."
She denies the question
One story that made the rounds had her telling Disney Studios chief Jeffrey Katzenberg: "Now, Jeffrey, there isn't going to be any Mickey Mouse in this movie, is there?"
"I didn't actually say that to Katzenberg," Ms. Turner clarifies, although she does recall joking about the incongruity of the studio's attaching itself to her story. And, she says, there were pressures to streamline certain elements of her life.
During Ms. Turner's infrequent visits to the production -- the movie was shot in just under three months, mostly on locations in Los Angeles and Sacramento, reportedly on a lean $12-million to $15-million budget -- she couldn't resist making on-the-spot corrections. "She was right there," recalls Ms. Bassett, sliding into Ms. Turner's disarming rapid-fire drawl. " 'What suit are you wearing? You know, with this suit I wore zebra shoes.' And she went to the store and bought me some shoes out of her pocket." Once, concerned that a piece of wardrobe was "too old-fashioned," Ms. Turner literally took the shirt off her back and gave it to Ms. Bassett.
Playing it straight
"Tina takes her life seriously and wants things to be as accurate and true as possible," says Mr. Gibson. "She's not easy. She'll tell you she doesn't like something -- you'll get it from Tina very straight. But she'll always do it in as gentle a manner as possible."
Ms. Turner has not seen the completed movie and has no plans to do so any time soon. She seems, by turns, both diffident and wary about its release.
"Why do I need to see what Ike did to me?" she asks rhetorically. "I've never dwelt on it." Then: "I'm not necessarily nervous about it -- I'm all right. I'm just not in a big rush. I hate violence and I hate cursing -- I don't watch movies with that kind of stuff. It's ugly."
(Nevertheless, Ms. Turner has scheduled her first American tour in six years -- it opens Sunday in Reno -- to capitalize on the release of the movie and its soundtrack album.)
Whatever the film's factual vagaries, its matter-of-fact tone and performances by Mr. Fishburne and Ms. Bassett, an acclaimed stage actress who appeared with Mr. Fishburne in "Boyz N the Hood" and as Malcolm's wife in "Malcolm X," lends it a sheen of emotional authenticity. Again and again, it returns to a central theme: the insidiousness of abusive relationships.
Keeping her promise
"The most fascinating thing to me about Tina is why, as a free woman with so many opportunities and so much talent, she chose to go back to Ike year after year after year," says Mr. Gibson.
The answer, says Ms. Turner, was simply that she had promised. Whatever his faults, Ike Turner was a dogged, visionary musician with an ear for writing hits (that others appropriated without crediting him) and for discovering and nurturing players who deserted him when their ships came in.
"He worked very hard," says Ms. Turner, "and had been nice to me. I promised him I wouldn't do that."
So she stayed. "It was another time, another frame of mind," she says by way of explaining the filmmakers' "not being able to understand that some people can give their word and keep it."
Los Angeles Times Syndicate