Bessie (2015)

Biography, Drama, Music
Michael Kenneth Williams, Tika Sumpter, Queen Latifah, Bryan Greenberg
The story of legendary blues performer, Bessie Smith, who rose to fame during the 1920s and '30s.
  • 16 May 2015 Released:
  • N/A DVD Release:
  • N/A Box office:
  • Christopher Cleveland (screenplay), Horton Foote ( Writer:
  • Dee Rees Director:
  • N/A Website:

All subtitles:

Definitely NOT "about the music"7/10
The year was 1972 and the challenge for director Sidney J. Furie was how to translate the biography of Billie Holliday into something that had "bite" for the mainstream.

He succeeded, in large part by his decision to make the story as much about the music as the personal travails of the famous singer.

At the time it seemed the obvious choice. Yet, flash forward 43 years and today the team behind this project, faced with the exact same choice, took the road less travelled.

It is not as if Queen L. does not have a set of pipes. After years of appearing in a string of "commodity" lifetime/lifestyle/X-mas movies -- in parts which leveraged off her infectious natural sweetness -- she stunned audiences worldwide with her performance of I KNOW WHERE I've BEEN in 2007.

(For the record, how perfect was she in that performance?? This reviewer has that song in every mix he owns and never gets tired of it. Her performance was so flawless that she could have won IDOL on that single track alone.)

This is a hard film to review. A lot of talent behind the camera, a lot of talent in front of the camera, and all of it hamstrung by the executive decision to downplay the music and focus on the strife.

Larger than life people have larger than life problems. But we already knew that. Personally, I missed the tunes.
Bessie Disconnects ***7/10
Queen Latifah totally captured the soul of blues singer Bessie Smith, in this film biography of the legendary singer.

The problem with the picture is the disconnection we see throughout. It is not clear regarding the circumstances of the death of Smith's mother, which she is blamed for. Even when Smith visits the cemetery years later, we don't see the monument of the mother.

Latifah is excellent in the role. Her singing is tremendous and she comes across as a tough, vulgar, often drunk young woman who knew from an early age what she wanted out of life.

Smith was brash, totally outspoken and not afraid of anything or anyone. We see this when she chased Klan members away while performing in North Carolina.

She receives fine support from Monique as Ma Rainey. We see the latter give Smith pointers, only for the two to split when Smith wants more recognition. Years later, when the depression hits, they're suddenly reunited and this apparently opened doors for Bessie.
Missed opportunity5/10
Long-overdue and obviously made with good intentions, this TV biopic of legendary 1920s Blues queen suffers from usual script trouble: how to condense someone's life in a two-hour story without making it all like a cartoon. The project was already planned for decades, I remember media talking about possibility of this movie even in early 1970s, right after "Lady sings the Blues" and back than Roberta Flack (who was white-hot at the time) was considered for the main role. Not that Bessie was ever forgotten - "Columbia records" kept her complete works on the market, Janis Joplin paid for her gravestone, there were theater plays and books about her life, notably by Chris Albertson who became world's greatest authority on the subject (and was curiously ignored in making of this movie). It took four decades to finally have this biopic made and contrary to my great expectations, I am saddened that it all resulted with such a predictable stereotypical fantasy.

Ingredients are right: cast is spectacular and gives its best shot. Not just Queen Latifah in the main role and Mo'Nique (as Ma Rainey) but countless actors playing the circle of lovers, husbands, boyfriends and relatives are impressive, particularly Khandi Alexander (as vicious cousin) who steals the scene every time she comes up on the screen. Clothing, scenery, visually everything works just fine and for a while you might even enjoy the thrill of re- created world of 1920s specially as actors are so sizzling and determined, there is a very fascinating insight into a long-gone segregated, brutal world of woman who escaped crushing poverty and became breadwinner for everybody around her. BUT (and there is a big but) even though ingredients are right and yes, it actually happen just as shown in the movie (it can be checked in her biography, yes she did spit out and was rejected on her first recording audition, yes she faced the Ku Klux Clan, yes Ma Rainey sang ""Black Bottom Blues", yes she traveled in her own train caravan) after a while script rushes so much that everything becomes one big blur of short episodes piled on top of each other to the point that it really seems like cartoon version of Bessie's life, short nuggets and photo shots. Concerts. Click. Racists. Click. Dominating boyfriend-turned-husband-turned-manager. Click. Bootlegged booze. Click. Fights. Click. Pale white boys interested to make money out of her. Click. She's bisexual. Click.

No doubt movie is fascinating for young audience who are finally introduced to artist and those who have never heard of this feisty lady and her contemporaries might be impressed to find out that almost a century ago there were proud black women fighting like lionesses for their own place in the world. Not everybody was a maid, washerwoman or prostitute - Bessie, Rainey, Ida Cox, Alberta Hunter, Victoria Spivey, Lucille Bogan and Sippie Wallace (to name just a few) were heroines of their time and even though they represented "sin" it was still better option than to scrub the stairs in Baltimore. So on one side it works as reminder about important chapter in American history and kudos to good intentions, it might intrigue kids to search for original recordings.

Where the film fails is to dig just a little deeper under the surface and explain reasons for Bessie's behavior - we all understand she was this brilliant artist but what we see in the movie is woman who drinks, fights, cusses and basically intimidates everyone around. It is a testament to Queen Latifah's acting that she suggests vulnerability hidden deep inside under all that bravado and there were few short scenes (mostly when she is alone with herself, coming home after the concerts) that glimpse in direction where this movie did not dare to go and which would work much better had the creators or script writers decided to explore her inner world instead of giving us point-by-point well-known snapshots. Curiously, film decidedly ends on a upbeat note, going so far to even present Bessie's triumph in Carnegie Hall (which never happened) and completely ignoring circumstances around her death. I have been living with her music for decades now so naturally after initial excitement about the movie I feel saddened that this big chance is missed now and since it took 78 years from her death for her story to finally reach the movie screen, I doubt that in my life I will see another attempt.
It's Tough Out There for a Biopic Maker5/10
A movie about some aspect of Bessie Smith's life is decades overdue, considering the broad cultural shadow she casts. A few episodes of her tumultuous life explored in depth would resonate, but like too many biopics, this one suffers from the creators' attempt to tell the whole story, or most it, and the results are mechanical, predictable and force-fitted into various agendas. Most biopic makers stumble upon these rocks. Their task is difficult.

From the start of "Bessie" we are told five things over and over: Bessie was haunted throughout her life by memories of the mother she lost as a child. Bessie had lesbian dalliances. Bessie loved to drink straight gin, preferably right out of the bootlegger's glass jar. Bessie had a violent temper. Bessie was a fiercely independent, take-charge kind of gal. But the main thing about Bessie that is presented only sporadically and by rote is her distinctive singing and how it came to be that way. Queen Latifah, who would seem to be a fine choice for this role, does suggest Smith in girth and even in facial features, but despite a strong voice which she tries to adapt to the Smith groove, she never makes us feel the rafters rising as the Smith legend tells us. The only time she approaches the true Smith sound is near the end when hard living had begun to ravage her vocal chords. And in the early scenes Latifah, given her age and physicality, cannot possibly persuade us that she is a young, unformed artist-to-be.

The attempt to demonstrate how she gradually upstaged her mentor, Ma Rainey (played to the hilt by Mo'Nique), is episodic and sketchy, not organic or dramatic; the same goes for the re-enactments of Smith's altercations with members of the high-toned Manhattan art scene in the 1920s and early 1930s. Some good substance is made of her volatile love affairs with men (Michael Kenneth Williams and Mike Epps). But her mid-career slump is presented as with no explanation or cause, other than perhaps the Great Depression. SPOILER ALERT: Her tragic death (a potential movie in itself) is entirely absent, as "Bessie" ends in mid-air, or mid- road, as we are left with her musings about where she will go next after a picnic with her former bootlegger.

So, a point has been scored for Bessie Smith. It opens a conversation. But more is needed.
Loved It!!8/10
I'm going to repeat something I saw another user off IMDb say, "LOVED IT!!" I just saw this brand new biopic off HBO GO last night, and it's a winner!

"Bessie" is an HBO TV film about legendary American blues singer Bessie Smith (Queen Latifah), and focuses on her transformation as a struggling young singer into "The Empress of the Blues". Bessie Smith (Queen Latifah) became one of the most popular female recording artists of the 1920s and 1930s as a singer of blues and jazz. This biography follows her life from a young singer from Chattanooga, Tennessee to her success- as well as her trials and tribulations revolving around family, show business, and personal demons.

There is a great scene in the film- *possible SPOILER* which Bessie sums up the difference between Southern and Northern racism. She says that Southerners don't mind how close you are, as long as you don't get too big- and Northerners don't mind how big you get, as long as you don't get too close. What a sad, but true, commentary on the racial divide, which this singer- and her music- made big strides to over-come, that benefit African-American recording artists to this day I think.

And as for Latifah's performance- performer, artist, bi-sexual lover, African-American woman, abused child, addict, etc... let's just say this is the performance of her career no doubt- and watch out at Emmy and Golden Globe-time this coming awards season... Michael K. Williams ("Boardwalk Empire"), Khandi Alexander, Monique and Oliver Platt co- star. And wow!-I saw a writing credit attributed to- Horton Foote!- which I checked out at Wikipedia. Apparently he was involved at a time Columbia Pictures was going to produce this movie way back when in the '80s I think..??- before the Zanucks (2 of the films' executive producers) took this project over in the early '90s.