Monday, June 29, 2020

Bessie Imbues Some Unique Details Into The Music Biopic Genre

Bessie Smith was a one-of-a-kind music legend. Born in Chattanooga, Tennesse, Smith was raised in a troubled household and struggled to find steady work as a singer. A chance to work Ma Rainey (Mo'Nique), however, gives Bessie Smith the breakthrough she needs. Soon, Smith is her own solo act and one that's becoming quite famous. As the years go by, the highs for Bessie Smith are high but the lows, including her worst struggles with addiction, those sink very deep. All the while, Smith also grapples with her inability to really emotionally connect with others as well las torment from the past that's informing her iconic blues music.

In 2020, Bessie is now a relic of another era. Released in May 2015 on HBO, Bessie came out five months before Netflix started releasing their own original movies on their streaming service. Five years later, the types of films that television services like Netflix, Amazon, and HBO have been elevated considerably. Once upon a time, TV movies were cheaply-made affairs that CBS would run on Saturday nights. Even HBO's TV movies, though usually packed with star power, tended to be modestly-budgeted productions. Flashfoward to 2020 and HBO is spending $17.5 million just to purchase the Hugh Jackman movie Bad Education, a production that was meant to be shown in theaters.

The lines between theatrical and TV movies have blurred considerably since Bessie premiered. Bessie, which comes from director Dee Rees, is a more old-school style of TV movie, one working with more extreme budget limitations than subsequent HBO films. This means the camerawork and cinematography, though competent, rarely show much imagination. Meanwhile, the screenplay (which is credited to three writers including Rees) does tend to hew closely to the stock story outline of most music biopics. This includes an opening sequence showing Bessie moments before singing late in her life before we flashback to her earliest days. You see, Bessie Smith has to think about her entire life before she plays.

However, just because Bessie has a traditional story structure doesn't mean it's devoid of creative touches. For one thing, the movie takes on a welcome nonchalant attitude towards Smith's fluid sexuality. Though we first see her in bed with a woman, Lucille (Tika Sumpter), Smith proceeds to also have sexual encounters with an assortment of men, including bootlegger Richard (Mike Epps). Happily, Bessie eschews making dumb jokes over this aspect of Smith's character. On the contrary, both Bessie and its titular lead are very open about the idea that Bessie Smith could be attracted to multiple genders.

It's a unique approach to sexuality in a mainstream American biopic and one of a number of fine touches that help make sure Bessie has its own unique identity. Among such touches is Bessie's ending, which forgoes the traditional music biopic ending of following a real-life subject until their actual death. Instead, Bessie ends with Bessie Smith having lots of life left to live and being nervous yet ready to confront it all. Not only does this conclusion help separate Bessie from so many other music biopics but it feels just right for a movie that so heavily involves addiction. That's not a disease you can just beat and then forget about, it's something you live with every day. How fitting, then, that Bessie's ending sees its protagonist directly confronting the idea of taking life one day at a time.

Those are the best storytelling aspects of Bessie and, as a filmmaker, Rees does a good job executing them. The same can be said for Rees' direction of the various actors in Bessie, which results in an assortment of noteworthy performances. This is particularly true of the work done by Queen Latifah in Bessie's lead role. While many music biopic lead performances tend to opt for an easy caricature instead of a more detailed performance, Latifah actually renders Smith as her own complex person. She's not just a series of references to famous smith quotes, Latifah does great work in fleshing out Bessie Smith as a human being. While Bessie isn't the greatest music biopic there is, Latifah's performance is one of the numerous aspects of the production that ensures it ends up being one of the stronger modern-day entries in the genre.

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