An intimate documentary on the life of legendary Tina Turner from her early years with Ike Turner through to happiness and 30 years of marriage living in Zurich, Switzerland.
As an icon of a woman redefining herself in her late 40s having escaped a violent and abusive marriage, Tina Turner has few equals. As the first woman to sell out concerts in huge football stadiums (including 180,000 in Rio, a then world-record attendance), Tina Turner has no equal. She is also one of the best-selling recording artists of all time (approximately 150 million records). All was achieved after a rancorous split from Ike Turner.
Tina is an up close and personal exploration divided into chapters. Inevitably, time is spent on those early years but the majority of the documentary as directed by Daniel Lindsay & TJ Martin (Undefeated, LA92) focuses on her phoenix-like emergence from Las Vegas cabaret to rock superstardom. With archive footage and interviews with the likes of husband Erwin Bach, Oprah Winfrey, Angela Bassett, music critics alongside Tina herself, Tina may avoid recent health problems and some of the more personal controversies with the schism between her and four sons, but it remains a fascinating crowd pleaser of triumph over adversity.
It may be 30 years old but as a biopic of Tina Turner, one of the greatest singers of all time who redefined herself having escaped an abusive marriage, What’s Love Got To Do With It still packs an emotive punch.
Abandoned by her mother as a child, Anna Mae Bullock shone in the local church choir. Moving to St Louis as a teenager, Anna Mae (Angela Bassett – Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, London Has Fallen) soon attracts the attention of band leader, Ike Turner (Laurence Fishburne – The Matrix, The Mule). Dominating everything around him, Ike controls Tina as a singer, a wife, a mother, a woman. As his drug habit spirals out of control and with it an uncontrollable rage, professional jealousy results in increasing violence towards her.
Unflinching in its depiction of domestic violence and abuse, director Brian Gibson’s film may take liberties with actual events, but it remains a potent exploration of Tina Turner the woman and years of stoicism in the name of her children and refusal to abandon them as her mother had years earlier.
Nominated for 2 Oscars in 1994 – best actress and best actor.
Fans of Ella Fitzgerald’s music will enjoy this 90 minute documentary from Leslie Woodhead (A Cry From the Grave, Endurance). But anyone looking for more than a cursory introduction to Ella Fitzgerald the woman will be sorely disappointed.
From little more than a street urchin on the stage of Harlem’s Apollo Theatre at its famed Amateur Night in 1934, Fitzgerald became the First Lady of Song and, with archival footage, photographs and interviews, the documentary charts her meteroic rise from the mid 1930s through to the 1990s and her death in 1996. Scat, jazz, the Great American Songbook series all sealed her name in music history.
But the documentary reveals little more than the basics of her personal life (failing to mention her first husband is one prime example). Fitzgerald was not a political animal but the racism in the US (and kept the most popular singer of her time off television programs) is cursory. There is a level of context (the fact her white manager Norman Granz was the signatory on the purchase of her Californian home) but Ella: Just One of Those Things, with interviews with the likes of adopted son Ray Brown Jnr, Smokey Robinson, Laura Mvula, Norma Miller, prefers to focus on the music.
A grandiloquent, sweeping epic of a biopic, director Richard Attenborough (Cry Freedom, Shadowlands) presents 50 years of world history in a stately three hour running time.
From a young lawyer arriving in apartheid South Africa to his assassination in New Delhi in January 1948, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (a performance of a lifetime by Ben Kingsley – Schindler’s List, Sexy Beast) believed and preached nonviolent resistance to colonial injustices. As India struggled for independence from British rule, so Gandhi became the figurehead for the struggle. Imprisoned many times by the authorities, his political ethics won millions of followers but also saw the rise of internal factionalism as others looked to violence to achieve their aims.
Grand in scope, there is an inevitability of an episodic narrative as Gandhi covers some 50 years of his life and times with Attenborough highlighting the excesses of British injustice. Gandhi’s wife Kasturba (Rohini Hattangadi – Agneepath, Pukar) remained steadfast in her support as the pressures increased. It all looks beautiful (cinematographers Ronnie Taylor and Billy Williams) but ultimately feels a little worthy, a little too deferential to its subject. But Gandhi still remains something of a cinematic achievement.
Nominated for 11 Oscars in 1983 including sound and original score, won 8 including best film, director, actor, original screenplay, cinematography, editing.
A standard biopic following the short-lived rise prior to an untimely and tragic death at the age of 22, The Buddy Holly Story is anchored by an outstanding Gary Busey (Lethal Weapon, The Firm) in the lead role.
The first white band to play at the Apollo in Harlem (booked sight unseen), a string of hits including Peggy Sue and That’ll Be the Day, Holly escaped small town Texas for the promise of New York. With schoolfriends The Crickets, the band quickly established itself but Jesse and Ray soon returned home. Marriage to Maria (Maria Richwine – Sex Crimes, Foreign Land) was cut tragically short in February, 1959 when the light aircraft he and members of his band were travelling crashed in Iowa.
Director Steve Rash (Son in Law, Good Advice) emphasises the upbeat in the telling of a man full of charm and guile who also wrote some of the iconic songs of the burgeoning rock and roll age. There’s no dwelling on the tragedy and The Buddy Holly Story instills a very real sense of raw realism in the music.
Nominated for 3 Oscars in 1979 including best actor and sound, won 1 for best adapted score.
Straightforward in its telling of the early, pre-professional tennis years of Venus Williams, King Richard focuses on the influence of her controversial father and his 78 page plan to make Venus and younger sister Serena the world’s best.
As Richard Williams, WIll Smith (Ali, Hancock) hits all the right notes as a man obsessed and determined: yet, for all his wants for Venus (Saniyya Sidney – Fences, Hidden Figures) to be a success, he treads carefully at times, seemingly to the detriment of her success. There’s plenty of confrontations with his wife, Brandy (Aunjanue Ellis – Ray, If Beale St Could Talk) and the tennis world, including top coach Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal – The Many Saints of Newark, Ford vs Ferrari), as Venus (and therefore Richard) takes on allcomers.
Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green (Monsters and Men, TV’s We Own This City) it’s Will Smith’s film as he firmly takes hold of the centre court cajoling, bullying, threatening but with total focus on two of his five daughters. As a narrative, subtle and nuanced it’s not. But as a story it’s totally engrossing with committed performances and a script from first-timer Zach Baylin that simply and effectively does its job.
Nominated for 6 Oscars in 2022 including best film, supporting actress (Aunjanue Ellis) and original screenplay, won best actor for Smith.
A warm, modest homage to the late Oscar-winning actor Sidney Poitier, Sidney provides a context to the groundbreaking Hollywood career that, in a few short years, saw Poitier labelled as a sellout Uncle Tom by the burgeoning civil rights movements of the late 1960s.
From an illiterate, dirt poor Bahamaian childhood to a close call with the Florida KKK as a young teenager, Poitier’s trajectory into stardom did not follow the obvious path. But a chance performance with the American Negro Theatre in New York as the understudy to Harry Belafonte resulted in an invitation to Hollywood. And, with the backdrop of racism in the US in the 1950s and ’60s, Poitier’s career developed to include becoming the first African-American male to win an Oscar (Lilies of the Field in 1964) and biggest male box office attraction in 1967. But his successes backfired in the more politically active black communities.
Sidney is more a context to Poitier’s significance in the history not just of Hollywood but a wider United States – as born out by the likes of Morgan Freeman, Spike Lee, Denzel Washington and Oprah Winfrey. In spite of interviews with his six daughters and two ex-wives, Sidney, as directed by Reginald Hudlin (The Black Godfather, Marshall), never sufficiently plumbs the depths of the more personal difficult life lived. The result is both enjoyable and informative yet a carefully curated immortalisation of the man himself.
As controversial as they as come as Australian director Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Chopper) blows the legend that is Marilyn Monroe out of the water.
Interweaving scenes shot in black and white with those is colour, Dominik choses to allow the narrative of her life to unfold in a series of fractured tableaux. Early childhood with a mentally unstable mother (Julianne Nicholson – August: Osage County, TV’s Mare of Easttown) seagues into uncertainty as an adult. Yet dominant is Monroe’s preoccupation with her unknown daddy, who as a child was but a picture on the wall. Lovers and husbands become her quasi daddy, all treated briefly in this slow burn of a feature (six years of marriage to third (unnamed) husband Arthur Miller – Adrien Brody – is dispatched in three shortish scenes).
Ana de Armas (Knives Out, No Time to Die) is extraordinary as Monroe – but she is let down by a film that is academic and artificial, focusing on, as described by Miller, the saddest woman he ever met. Blonde is a brave attempt, very much along the lines of the director’s earlier The Assassination of Jesse James… with a (surprisingly uninspiring) score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. But, too clever by half in avoiding any semblance of a standard biopic (because it’s not – Blonde is an adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ fictional novel), Blonde may look beautiful (cinematographer Chayse Irvin – BlacKkKlansman, Hannah) but it is ultimately repetitive and emotionally impenetrable.
Nominated for best actress Oscar in 2023.
An odd, sad tale that beautifully captures autism through Wain’s own behaviour, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain both entertains and disturbs.
Confronted with mental health throughout his life, Wain (Benedict Cumberbatch – The Power of the Dog, The Courier) was unsuitable for the responsibility of a family consisting of his mother and five younger sisters (none of whom ever married). Ever the dilettante as artist and composer, further 19th century social controversy was courted when he married the family governess, Emily (Claire Foy – First Man, TV’s The Crown). Relative stability and happiness was short-lived – but through Wain’s humorous sketching of cats, a degree of fame is achieved.
Mixing realism with scenes of fantasy, director Will Sharpe (Black Pond, TV’s Landscapers) captures the eccentricity of life around Wain. The dour, down-to-earth sister Caroline (Andrea Riseborough – Brighton Rock, Battle of the Sexes) struggles with the family realities whilst Wain gives away his cat pictures lost in his own troubled head. It’s a deeply sad narrative imbued with charm and sweetness – and Cumberbatch as ever is eminently watchable.
A biopic of a showman by a showman as director Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge, The Great Gatsby) hits the ground running with a full-throttle energy that is Elvis. Yet, with its narrative framed within the context of Elvis’ manager Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks – Castaway, Big), there’s an element of restraint from a director known for excess splash.
From heartthrob teenager threatening, with his stage gyrations, the fabric of 1950s white American respectability to an overweight, drug-addled 42 year-old and an early death, Presley was a true star. But Presley’s manager was a gambling addict and fraudster, sucking the singer dry from a multi-million dollar career.
As the young Elvis, an energetic Austin Butler (Dune, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood) excels (he struggles a little in the later years) in the high melodrama beloved by Luhrmann. But Elvis avoids the pitfalls of detail. Instead, as we move quickly through the decades, high-octane snapshots sit alongside insightful moments of quiet as the complex relationships with Parker and his father (Richard Roxburgh – Moulin Rouge, Breath) unfold. With the marriage to Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge – The Visit, Better Watch Out) crumbling, Elvis looks more to the record-breaking five seasons in Vegas and an increasingly desperate Parker needing to hold on to his meal ticket.
Nominated for 8 Oscars in 2023 including best film, actor, cinematography production design