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TV Review 2015: "Bessie" (Directed by Dee Rees, Starring Queen Latifah, Michael K. Williams, et.al.)
HBO's Middling And Forgettable Biopic Is A Lackluster and Lazy Effort That Barely Scratches The Surface Of The Real Bessie
Doggone it, Bessie. You done failed me now.
In a rather surprisingly disappointing production, HBO, known for its impeccable programming in terms of series, comedy specials, and produced movies ("The Normal Heart" and "Recount," for instance), "Bessie," the biopic starring a mid-career Queen Latifah thirsting for a proper career resurgence, is letdown in so many ways. What starts off confidently quickly descends into a very lazy portrait with spotty, unfocused direction, inaccurate historical portrayals, and less than extraordinary musical numbers that never do justice to the actual Bessie Smith or her real-life cohorts.
So, what precisely went wrong here? For starters, the phrase "too many cooks in the kitchen" undoubtedly applies since the script for this film was tackled by a whopping four screenwriters. Clearly, there were plenty of narrative and creative disputes with the endless rotation of changing hands going through too many drafts that all but quite possibly drained the life out of a possibly potent script. This movie reportedly took twenty years to produce with Latifah, a former heavyweight 1990's hip-hop/rap artist, offered the role of Bessie at the too-young age of 22. No doubt, this film remained in development hell and, if this current, finished iteration is any indication, ought to have remained on ice. Dee Rees, the director who helmed this picture, has only one other professional debut film credit with "Pariah", and, unfortunately, her inexperience bleeds through in every sequence as most of her directorial choices take you out of the scene and leave you scratching your head.
This biopic relies on an overabundance of flashbacks. Even though this technique is standard-issue for films of this nature, the art-house-style sequences left me utterly mystified because they didn't function in the way that they should. Flashbacks are meant for exposition and although they do accomplish this, the sheer amount of them makes it seem like a really lazy default approach that reeks of a rookie, student-film level thesis project. Also, the establishment of time and chronology was way off. Many events portrayed in the film were off by at least several years in addition to the inaccuracies of character dynamics. It is known biographically that Ma Rainey, played here by an out of her depth Mo'Nique and Bessie weren't the best of friends that the film portrays them as.
In fact, Bessie's fast-rising star became so apparent so quickly that she began to eclipse Ma Rainey's stardom as Rainey was also 10-15 years Bessie's senior. Rainey wisely chose to back out of the business in advance of the Great Depression while Smith, ballsy as ever, decided to stay on and weather the harshness of the era. An acknowledged big spender, Smith was known to spend her many fortunes as soon as she got them so when the Depression hit, she'd gladly accept $750 per gig as opposed to her pre-Depression rate of $5000-7500. Furthermore, Mo'Nique's characterization of Rainey is incredibly prickly and even mean when, in reality, Rainey was extremely giving and much loved by everyone, including her musicians, whom she paid well and treated even better. By most accounts, including that of her composer Thomas Dorsey (later to becomea brilliant writer of gospel tunes), she was an ugly woman with a heart of gold. You don’t get any sense of her warmth from this film.
Other issues also abound with the normally very versatile Michael K Williams, well-known now for playing notorious, Emmy-nominated stick-up man Omar Little on "The Wire" and, more recently, as Atlantic City gangster and speakeasy owner Chalky White on "Boardwalk Empire," delivering a very one-note performance as easily-tempered boyfriend and later husband to Bessie Jack Gee.
Not only did it seem like he was going through the motions but his purpose wasn't utilized well. Historically, JG (as he is referred to affectionately by Bessie in the film), was a bitter, jealous hanger-on that never rose to the level of managing her or involved in any of her transactions with labels or tours or pretty much anything. Essentially, he was a piece of candy for Bessie whenever both got bored and their relationship became increasingly more cantankerous. At her death in 1937, folks contributed to a fund for Bessie’s headstone, and twice he walked off with the contributions. Bessie never received a headstone until it was purchased for her by the late blues-rock performer Janis Joplin in 1970 – 33 years after her death. Jack Gee, and the couple’s adopted son, Jack, Jr., fought over her estate like crocodiles when she died.
Composer Clarence Williams, portrayed as a footnote in the film, was really her de facto manager and composer and contract negotiator, and did more for her professionally than anyone else in her professional life. The fact that they messed this up in a big way is baffling considering it is HBO and they surely could have had plenty of consultations on the film to verify events like this. I expected better from this production considering the pedigree in front of the camera and the network’s grand history.
As for the Queen portraying the Empress, you can tell Latifah did all that she could to try to capture the histrionic powerhouse and presence of the real-life Bessie. However, due in large part to rookie direction and perhaps not enough vocal coaching, Latifah misses the mark by a country mile. Considering the script she was working with, Latifah attempted to utilize the full breath of her powers. She did so in her underrated but truly exceptional performance in 2002's "Chicago", the Rob Marshall-directed A-list top-line Broadway musical adaptation that swept the Oscars that year. So, it definitely isn't an issue of talent but it mostly amounts to untapped potential.
As I watched this with my dad, a blues and folk music historian and published writer, we couldn't help but make a comparison to another mediocre biopic called "Cadillac Records", a 2008 theatrically released film that was meant to chart the ascent of prominent black record label performers on Chess Records in the 1940s and 50s. Featuring an incredibly miscast Adrian Brody as Leonard Chess and other A-Listers mugging for the camera doing desperate caricatures of such icons as Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and Chuck Berry,, the film crunched too much history and suffered under the weight of its own lofty ambitions. However, Beyonce as Etta may be worth watching, as she did an incredible job.
One can only imagine if "Bessie" was afforded a theatrical release with a larger budget and wider net to attract more accurately cast stars and faithful depictions. They may have also been able to attend to the work of writer and ultimate Bessie biographer Chris Albertson, who was one of the rare music scholars/historians who had the opportunity to interview people in Bessie and Ma Rainey’s lives, including Ruby Walker Smith, Bessie's niece who toured with her for over a decade and may have been her sometime lover.
The most bizarre thing and the most unfortunate is that most times music biopics of female icons have not been given the theatrical treatment save for a few - Loretta Lynn's spellbinding "Coal Miner's Daughter", Tina Turner's "What's Love Got To Do With It", and Edith Piaf's "La Vie En Rose". The rest, namely Johnny Cash's "Walk The Line", Charlie Parker's "Bird", and recently Bob Dylan's "I'm Not There" have resulted in significant and poignant and largely accurate definitions. It is a sad reality that female revolutionaries who opened so many doors are still sidelined and misappropriated and not given the chance for wider recognition or faithful documentation.
Can I actually recommend "Bessie" as a film that should be added to your bucket list? Absolutely not. You are better off reading Chris Albertson's biography and going on YouTube to listen to her "St. Louis Blues", a rare 1929 recording which really will give you a better sense as to who she was and why she earned her "Empress of the Blues" moniker.
This film hardly scratches the surface of her critical contributions to American music and merely serves to just name drop Bessie to a new generation. Hopefully, a more definitive biopic will come out that will overwrite this film and reinvigorate the watershed moments that Bessie Smith provided and how she successfully paved the way for so many artists after her. She was golden. This film was leaden. Your move.