Friday, May 26, 2023

Imitating the Inimitable: the Loss of Loud, Proud Tina Turner

So another icon has left the building. Yesterday’s newspapers brought word that the great Tina Turner had passed away at age 83.  I never saw her perform in person, but her recordings and over-the-air performances were plenty to convince me that as a singer, dancer, and all-around bad ass she was one of a kind. To me, and to many others, she will always be “Proud Mary” for real.

 Which, of course, is why Hollywood snapped up the opportunity to portray her onscreen. In the 1993 biopic, What’s Love Got to Do With It?, Tina was played by Angela Bassett, while Laurence Fishburne took on the role of Tina’s talented but sometimes ruthless husband, Ike. (Both were nominated for Oscars.)  Though she criticized the film’s many inaccuracies, Tina herself praised Bassett’s performance, later writing in a 2003 Time  magazine tribute to Bassett, “Angela, the first time we met, you didn't look, sound, or move like me—that came later after you worked so hard to make it happen. But even then, I could see that the young woman standing before me had strength, determination, and big, big dreams, just like me.”

 It's rare when the lead actor in a biopic gets that kind of praise from a living subject. Which doesn’t mean, of course, that what Bassett contributed on screen should be confused with the real thing.  We move even further from reality with Tina, the jukebox musical first seen on stage in London (2018) and then  on Broadway a year later. The show, which I’ve enjoyed, neatly shapes Tina’s chronology as a way to work in most of her top songs, using them to explain the various phases of her life.

 So-called jukebox musicals have been all the rage on Broadway for some years now, giving theatregoers a chance to pretend they’ve seen some of the world’s great talents in person. Not all jukebox musicals set out to tell the performer’s own story: for instance, Girl From the North Country re-arranges 19 pre-existing songs by Bob Dylan to tell a Depression-era story about the inhabitants of a shabby Duluth rooming house. But the classic jukebox musical uses a singer’s own catalogue of hits as a way to narrate the story of his or her showbiz career. I’m thinking of the current MJ: The Musical (about, natch, the life and times of Michael Jackson) and A Beautiful Noise: The Neil Diamond Music (which includes in its cast actors playing Diamond Then and Diamond Now). Beautiful, the musical about songwriter Carole King’s eventful life, was well-received when it opened in 2014 for a five-year run. There was somewhat less love for The Cher Show (something of a hodgepodge, with three different actresses playing Cher as Star, Babe, and Lady). It only stuck around for 295 performances.

 Aside from shows that focus on a single performer, there are several that explore the dynamics of an evolving musical group.  Long-ago revues like Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Smokey Joe’s Café paid tribute to songwriters like Fats Waller and the Leiber/Stoller duo, but didn’t really focus on anyone’s biographical story. More recently, the long-running Jersey Boys intertwined the lives of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons with their musical hits, explaining how four feckless young guys from the Garden State grew and changed as they found themselves becoming cultural icons. In a similar spirit, Ain’t Too Proud has drilled in on Motown’s The Temptations.

 Is it nostalgia that endears these shows to the public? I think we all want to feel that we were truly in the room where it happened,    


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