What’s Love Got to Do With It” looks like a sure-fire winner. The musical biography of songstress Tina Turner is a passionate personal and professional drama that hits both the high and low notes of an extraordinary life and career. An immensely enjoyable saga that’s tough, funny and touching, this Touchstone offering should score across the board with audiences and ring up big numbers for the summer.
From the outset, there’s a sense of specialness in Kate Lanier’s screenplay. Young Tina, aka Anna Mae Bullock, is first seen as a precocious youngster whose bluesy interpretation of gospel drives a proper choirmaster to extremes. Closer to home, she is left in the care of her grandmother after her mother (Jenifer Lewis) goes off to the big city. Years will pass before they are reunited in St. Louis.
It’s also in St. Louis, circa 1958, that she encounters charismatic rhythm and blues singer/songwriter Ike Turner (Laurence Fishburne). The script makes it clear that Ike, though unquestionably capable of great charm, sees in his renamed Tina a very potent meal ticket. He is enormously skillful at coercing her to work to the breaking point — often through physical and emotional abuse. Ike is a master of myriad forms of human cruelty.
For almost two decades, we witness the toll Ike’s excesses take on her personal and emotional well-being. Though projecting a sensual image on stage, she embodies traditional values of family and home. Her many attempts to break free of him crumble until Buddhism provides her with the inner strength to finally cut the cord that unites them.
Nothing in Bassett’s earlier repertoire suggested the consummate skill she brings to this star-is-born role. It’s a full-bodied, nuanced performance. While her physical resemblance to the subject is glancing, Bassett’s turn is one of the most convincing fictional embodiments of a living performer.
The only sour note comes at the finale, with a jarring switch from the fictional to the real-life Tina in concert. It’s a virtual slap to Bassett’s wondrous efforts.
Fishburne as Ike Turner is also pitch-perfect. He maintains the shred of humanity that keeps his ultimately despicable character outside the danger zone of caricature.
The supporting cast is uniformly strong, with Lewis worthy of special note as Tina’s slyly treacherous mother.
Director Brian Gibson easily surpasses his work in “The Josephine Baker Story ,” and the technical work, especially the musical elements, is tops.
Obviously the answer to “What’s Love Got to Do With It” is, a lot. Devotion has paid off in handsome entertainment rewards.