Livin' for Love: The Natalie Cole

Faith, God and drugs, not necessarily in that order, take center stage in "Livin For Love: The Natalie Cole" story. Part biopic, part testimonial and filled with a healthy share of inspiration, project is a unique viewing experience that defies the traditional celebrity TV movie, but is no less entertaining for its innovations. Based on her "Angel on My Shoulder" autobiography, "Livin' For Love," is primarily about Cole's drug addiction and its nearly devastating effects on her life and career.

Faith, God and drugs, not necessarily in that order, take center stage in “Livin For Love: The Natalie Cole” story. Part biopic, part testimonial and filled with a healthy share of inspiration, project is a unique viewing experience that defies the traditional celebrity TV movie, but is no less entertaining for its innovations.

Based on her “Angel on My Shoulder” autobiography, “Livin’ For Love,” is primarily about Cole’s drug addiction and its nearly devastating effects on her life and career. Instead of linear storytelling, director Robert Townsend lets the chanteuse narrate her own story; throughout the dramatized accounts of her life, Cole appears in a confessional-like setting and comments on the events just witnessed.

At first, the effect seems intrusive, but Townsend handles the situation creatively, using freeze frame and slow motion to ease the transition. The whole project might have become self-indulgent if it weren’t for the disarming honesty with which Townsend and Cole present her story.

Cole’s multiple bouts with drug abuse are never sugarcoated, and the star is quite frank when she admits how much fun she had using heroin. And while some viewers may be put off by the idea of a woman who made an art out of recreational and casual drug use despite a privileged upbringing, Cole is sure to put the blame squarely on her own shoulders.

Dramatically, however, one wishes writer Cindy Myers would have explored family relationships more closely. Auds briefly get the warm and fuzzy remembrances of Nat King Cole played with poignancy by James McDaniel, and we learn that mama Maria (Diahann Carroll) was often protective and cold.

But sister Cookie is barely a footnote and Cole’s celebrity seemingly occurs in a vacuum; there are a few nods to fame and fortune, including one scene where Cole and a group of partygoers snort coke off of a Dianna Ross album cover, but pic shies away from the celebrity perspective — an odd choice considering Cole grew up calling Frank Sinatra “Uncle Frankie.”

Performances are solid, and Townsend utilizes the interesting tactic of having Theresa Randle as the younger Natalie while Cole plays herself clean and sober. One assumes this was done to save the star from replaying her drug-filled days and to allow Cole to dazzle viewers with her Grammy-winning voice.

Tape reviewed lacked final tech credits.

Livin' for Love: The Natalie Cole Story

NBC; Sun., Dec. 10; 9 p.m.

Production

Filmed in Toronto by Robert Greenwald Productions and Pearson Television International in association with NBC. Executive producers, Natalie Cole, Robert Greenwald, Liz Selzer Lang; producer, Carroll Newman; director, Robert Townsend; writer, Cindy Myers.

Crew

Editor, Sabrina Plisco-Morris; camera, Denis Lenoir; music, Stephen James Taylor; sound, Stuart French; casting, Reuben Cannon & Associates, Ross Clydesdale, Juli-Ann Kay. Running time: 120 MIN.

Cast

Young Natalie - Theresa Randle Natalie (1984 to present) - Natalie Cole Nat King Cole - James McDaniel Diahann Carroll - Maria Cole Marvin Yancy - Randy Goodwin Abdullah - Cle Bennett Aunt Bay - Sandi Ross Young Cookie - Alisha Morrison Adult Cookie - Catherine Burdon
With: Stephanie Sams, Andrea Lewis

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more