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SUMMER SNEAKS : Tina Turner's Story Through a Disney Prism : The singer's film biography, 'What's Love Got to Do With It,' focuses on her turbulent relationship with her mentor and ex-husband Ike Turner as well as her triumphant comeback

May 16, 1993|MICHAEL WALKER | Michael Walker is a free-lance writer based in Los Angeles

The Park Plaza hotel in downtown L.A. 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 shot for "What's Love Got to Do With It," the biopic based on Turner's harrowing autobiography, "I, Tina," to be released by the Walt Disney Co.'s Touchstone Pictures June 9. Directed by Brian Gibson (who directed the HBO movie "The Josephine Baker Story"), the film stars Angela Bassett as Turner and Laurence Fishburne as Ike Turner, her ex-husband and former partner.

"This is the absolute bottom of her career," says Gibson, slouched on a sling chair as Bassett girds herself for the umpteenth take of--yes, Turner actually performed it--"Disco Inferno."

Gibson yells action and a tuxedoed M.C. 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, Bassett struts into the spotlight, dressed in one of the vampish stage outfits Turner lent the production. Lip-syncing the song's awful lyrics to Turner's prerecorded vocals, Bassett looks and moves astonishingly like, well, like Tina Turner herself.

But, Bassett says later, "I'm no imitator or impersonator. The emotional life--that's my forte. Truth and honesty."

Truth and honesty. With a biopic--especially a rock biopic--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, 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 Lanier.

But for all its grim moments--Ike beating Tina in a limo; Ike beating Tina in a recording studio; Ike 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, 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 with Ike she did attempt suicide.

Instead, 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 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-biopic 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."

The filmmakers took considerable liberties compressing the 40-odd years of Turner's life covered in the movie. Several scenes are composites of chronologically distant events, and branches of 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.)

Perhaps most flagrant is the portrayal of "River Deep, Mountain High," a song Turner recorded without Ike for producer Phil Spector, as a hit whose success so embittered Ike that it provoked another beating. In fact, "River Deep" was such a monumental flop that Spector withdrew from the music business for a time. (The song did, however, create a sensation in England and led to Ike and Tina's invitation to open the Rolling Stones' 1969 tour.)

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