A star vehicle and then some, “Bessie” casts Queen Latifah as blues singer Bessie Smith, in a big, bold movie that’s as vibrant, raw and musical as it is unfocused and messy. Dispensing with the customary closing note about Smith’s life, director Dee Rees’ long-simmering biopic is somewhat episodic in charting Smith’s rise and fall, but it’s sprinkled with wonderful supporting performances to augment a central tour de force that seems destined to drown out the rest of the longform field come awards time. HBO likes to offer prestige movies as the Emmy window closes, and Latifah’s “Bessie” more than fits the marquee.
How long has “Bessie” been kicking around? Executive producer Richard Zanuck and acclaimed writer Horton Foote (who shares a “story by” credit with Rees), died in 2012 and 2009, respectively. The two decades spent bringing the project to the screen, however, have paid off with the material finding the right venue and star, even if Latifah — who belts out many of the songs, in renditions that somewhat echo her turn in “Chicago” — is significantly older than Smith was when much of the action takes place.
Smith is introduced at the peak of her 1920s stardom, before flashing back to the point at which she breaks in, by befriending blues legend Ma Rainey. After performing as an opening act, she strikes out on her own, with her career receiving a turbo-boost when the brash Jack (Michael Kenneth Williams) walks into her life and announces that he intends to be her man.
“I’m nobody’s husband and I’m nobody’s daddy,” he says by way of introduction, and the way Williams delivers the speech, after “The Wire” and “Boardwalk Empire,” HBO should seriously consider putting him on permanent retainer.
What follows is fairly episodic in nature, chronicling Bessie’s affairs with both men and women; her recording contract with Columbia; touring the South, including a run-in with the Ku Klux Klan; and journeying North, where the snooty New York intellectuals who invite her into their salons (Oliver Platt plays one of them) aren’t much better. All this plays against the combustible relationship between Bessie and Jack, whose big ideas are accompanied by an equally sizable temper.
The performances are splendid throughout, starting with Latifah, whose gutsy embrace of the role requires laying herself bare in every way imaginable. In addition to standout turns by Williams and Mo’Nique, the supporting roster includes Khandi Alexander as Bessie’s estranged sister and Tory Kittles as her doting brother.
Coupled with the plentiful music, those assets largely overcome the fact that the movie itself is somewhat scattered, narratively speaking, not so much ending as simply covering different aspects of Smith’s colorful life before running out of time. (The finish, in fact, will likely send many scurrying to the Web for more details, which isn’t the worst thing that could happen.)
“Bessie” isn’t a perfect movie. But for HBO’s purposes, it’s a big-time noisemaker — one with the kind of show-stopping work that, when they start handing out trophies, isn’t likely to leave its star singin’ the blues.