Queen Latifah says ‘Bessie’ shows how singer made an impact

17 May 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

? We’ve Separated Fact From Fiction in HBO’s New Bessie Smith Biopic..

Bessie, HBO’s new biopic from writer-director Dee Rees, tracks Bessie Smith’s rise to fame as the Empress of Blues—and delivers stunning performances from starring actresses Queen Latifah and Mo’Nique.Queen Latifah was a young rapper just beginning to dabble in acting when she was first approached about the possibility of playing the lead in a film about singer Bessie Smith.In the opening minutes of ‘Bessie,’ the HBO biopic about blues legend Bessie Smith premiering Saturday, May 16th, the titular character absorbs the warmth of a single spotlight with an air of faint applause surrounding her.

Queen Latifah has discussed the possible reactions to scenes in in her forthcoming biopic, Bessie, saying she doesn’t care if the sexuality presented on screen makes people feel uncomfortable.Early on in “Bessie,” a new HBO biopic premiering Saturday and starring Queen Latifah as the singer Bessie Smith, Smith’s about-to-be mentor, Ma Rainey (played by Mo’Nique), offers a musicological lesson in show business. “You got ‘The St.The picture itself has become more important, too, since American culture far too often lets its cultural giants slip into the murky twilight of history. Draped in the glamour of the roaring 20s and with a life far from her Chattanooga roots, Bessie never seems to escape the pain of an ever haunted past and like any artist of her time she channels that struggle in brilliant performance. Louis Blues,’ ‘The Chicago Blues,’ ‘The Gin House Blues,’ the ‘My Man Done Left Me Blues’ — they all the same song, ain’t they, with the same three chords and you done heard them ’bout a dozen hundred times from a dozen hundred people.

Latifah does justice to that voice, not because she exactly replicates Smith, but because she conveys how Smith commanded a stage and took control of a song. To find out, I thumbed through several sources, including three biographies: Blues Empress in Black Chattanooga: Bessie Smith and the Emerging Urban South, Bessie, and Queen of Blues: The Life and Times of Bessie Smith. It follows Smith’s life after entering the music industry, her tumultuous career and the relationships she had with both men and women. “You know, people feel a type of way when they see any sexuality on-screen, to me, and I think it’s almost human nature,” she said. “People are so fascinated by it. Yet with a natural talent and her place as a top grossing female artist, she remains an icon to rock and roll, gospel, jazz, and even hip hop artists like Queen Latifah whose portrayal has garnered critical acclaim.

There shouldn’t even be a discussion, but it is because people are still curious and people still wonder how they feel about things. “At the end of the day, I don’t really care if someone feels uncomfortable about it. So you got to put something else in it.” The blues, that great American invention, that system of expression, of tension and release, that box for putting something into — have had their ups and downs, uptown and down, since emerging into cultural consciousness a century or so ago.

Queen Latifah: I didn’t know who Bessie Smith was, so when I played the music I said,” Oh, wow, this is different.” But I found Bessie through the project. The persona she portrays, simultaneously warm and rowdy, is consistent with accounts from Chris Albertson’s Bessie, which describe her giving away generous amounts of money, but also beating people up when they crossed her. (And yes, in case you were wondering, Smith really did chase about a dozen Ku Klux Klan members away from one of her tent shows. The film, which is based on “Bessie: Empress of the Blues,” a 1972 biography by Chris Albertson, has been on a long road to fruition; the late Horton Foote (who shares a story credit) took an early swing at a screenplay.

Latifah auditioned for it as long ago as 1992; eventually she gained control of the project herself and brought in Dee Rees (“Pariah”) to direct. (Rees also shares credit for the teleplay with Christopher Cleveland and Bettina Gilois.) “Bessie” follows the familiar “rise and fall and rise” arc of most show business stories, as the baby artist learns her crafts, then gets famous, forgotten and remembered again. (The movie itself is also meant to restore the singer to the world.) “Bessie” cheats a little on that last account, making it seem that Smith was part of the 1938 “From Spirituals to Swing” concert at Carnegie Hall, but she had died the year before, following a car crash, an event whose details are legendary and disputed and which the film wisely avoids altogether. You could listen to her and never get bored.” “Hundreds, if not thousands would come,” he added. “There was something mesmerizing, hypnotic in her voice. It does bear the compromises and conventions that routinely afflict biographical dramas — the editing of life into events, the reordering of facts to make a dramatic or political point (the supportive critic Carl Van Vechten, played by Oliver Platt, comes off poorly here), a more than usually generous use of montage to hurry the story along. Smith’s oldest sister, Viola, took over raising Smith and her four other young siblings—Tinnie, Lulu, Andrew, and Clarence, who is seen prominently in the movie as he travels with Bessie.

She cast this spell and in many ways transcended blues music.” No longer under the patronage of blues legend Ma’ Rainey (portrayed in the HBO film by Academy Award winner Mo’Nique), Smith ran her own roving musical review, at one point earning a record $2,000 a week and becoming one of the nation’s top traveling musicians. Schoenberg, who serves as Artistic Director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, suggests viewers watch the real Bessie Smith in the only film she made before her tragic death, 1929’s ‘St. But it’s no worse in this respect than most such films and better than many — rarely cornball and, indeed, conceivably less melodramatic than the life it portrays. Even white audiences fell under Bessie Smith’s spell, and the major record companies of the era soon figured out they needed to sign her, or find someone else who could imitate her.

Louis Blues.’ “Everything you ever wanted to know about Bessie Smith is conveyed in the film,” Schoenberg says. “That scene when she’s tossed down on the ground and looks into the camera. When we see Viola and a child-aged Bessie in flashbacks throughout the movie, it’s unclear whether Viola is her caretaker or her abuser—she yells and chases Bessie around a house as Bessie wails with despair for their mother, presumably soon after her death. When I read the script, I felt like Dee Rees was there with those women, like they sat down with her and said, “Let me tell you my story.” I think what appealed to me mainly was the friendship between these two women. Smith, who was immensely successful in the 1920s and less so in the 1930s, was by all accounts a big, sometimes unruly, unapologetic character; black and bisexual (“I auditions whosoever I please,” is how she puts it), she’s the kind of self-determining outsider heroine who seems to anticipate our own times, needs and interests. We hear a voice, which seems to be Viola’s, saying “It’s your fault Momma dead.” But I could find no record the sisters having a notably bad relationship.

Later, when she’s sitting at the bar and singing with the Hal Johnson chorus, you can distinctly hear her voice against 200 people.” The film based on the popular W.C. You can hear the echoes of her style in current-day divas such as Ruthie Foster, who just a few days ago got honored by the Blues Foundation as best female blues singer of the year, or Cécile McLorin Salvant, who was picked as top female jazz vocalist in the most recent Down Beat critics poll. A fine actress whose film career has lagged somewhat behind her talent, a hip-hop feminist, a singer powerful enough to get the measure of this music, a role model, a brand, she is secure enough also to let go of glamour. (Note her nude scene here, a rebuke almost to the traditional HBO nude scene — it’s a thing.) She sits easily in every scene; it’s a pleasure to watch her. Scott writes that the entire family experienced “some angst” when Viola assumed a position of authority and responsibility in the wake of their parents’ death. People ask me the first time I heard Bessie, and if I really think about it, probably the first time I heard it was Nina Simone, because if you’ve heard Nina Simone, you’ve heard Bessie; if you’ve heard Billie [Holiday], you’ve heard Bessie; and if you’ve heard Bessie, you’ve heard Ma Rainey.

Khandi Alexander plays her resentful and resented sister Violet, Tory Kittles her supportive brother Clarence, Tika Sumpter a composite live-in lover, Mike Epps a bootlegging boyfriend. But in reality, Smith met her at the young age of 14, when she joined the Moses Stokes company—her brother Clarence, who worked for the company, got her the audition. Best of all are Latifah’s scenes with Mo’Nique because their energies fit and because they have the most to do with music and performance and the reasons these women are worth remembering, and re-creating.

In fact, they might be even more appropriate in the current day, almost as if this blues singer from our great-grandma’s generation were sending a time capsule to millennials. In Albertson’s book, Gee is said to have credited a record store owner named Charlie Carson with having gotten Smith’s foot in the door—although Albertson notes that Gee did buy Smith a new dress for her recording. Just look at the lyrics to something like “Empty Bed Blues:” “You know what they talking about,” Marsalis states broadly. “The use of metaphor and humor to romance. The two married months after that recording, in 1923. (She had also been married once before, to a man named Earl Love, who died before Smith made her way north in 1922.) Smith and Gee were routinely unfaithful to one another throughout their marriage, and their fights often got violent.

Because romance was a proposition, so [love making] is going on either way.” The important ideal to Marsalis was that the songs were never nasty, but made full use of a creative blend of lyrics and leaving more to the imagination. In addition to “Empty Bed Blues”, Marsalis encouraged viewers to listen to “Back on Black Mountain” “Back Water Blues” and “All the Birds Sing Bass” which he lists as his favorites lyrically. Even today I listen in rapt admiration to these old tracks, wondering how such a fragile medium of sound waves preserved in grooves on a shellac disk can contain so much life force and emotional power. She had several affairs with women, but the movie’s female love interest, a character named Lucille, appears to be a composite of at least a couple people.

She could be a mixture of Smith’s close friend and niece by marriage, Ruby Walker, and a woman named Lillian Simpson, with whom Smith had an intense affair. But a black woman makes a film, they got to pull the other black woman and say, “Let’s compare you two.” It’s like with Bessie and [her contemporary] Ethel Waters. Bessie Smith’s life story may be filled with rule-breaking and hell-raising, but also conforms to the classic rags-to-riches formula of traditional American narratives. Smith was an orphan before the age of ten, and survived by performing on the streets of her native Chattanooga, Tennessee along with her brother Andrew. She toured with blues singer Ma Rainey while still in her teens, but soon went out on her own as a star attraction, performing in theaters and tent shows in the South and along the Eastern Seaboard.

Albertson writes that when she visited buffet flats—privately owned clubs that offered all sorts of illegal and illicit entertainment—Smith usually stuck to voyeuristic watching, rather than participating, lest word get back to Gee. Smith dazzled audiences in live performance, with her larger-than-life stage presence and a big, earthy voice that could reach the back row in the days before microphones and amplification. Smith’s 1923 recording of “Downhearted Blues” would eventually sell 2 million copies, and she followed it up with more than a dozen other mega-hits over the next half-decade.

At the peak of her fame, she was earning $2,000 per week (equivalent to $25,000 in 2015 purchasing power) and traveled in her own private rail car as part of an entourage of 40 troupers. Smith’s affair with bootlegger Richard Morgan is not fiction—the two started their affair while she was married to Gee, and it continued after that marriage fell apart. Salinger did the same in his short story “Blue Melody.” Editor David Lehman included one Smith’s song lyrics, “Empty Bed Blues,” in The Oxford Book of American Poetry, where it appears alongside works by Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson.

To show that story and not the normal stories that we see, where we die broke, alone, miserable. … I felt such a connection with this smart businesswoman and her fight for wage equality. However, the sight of Smith and Morgan sitting in the back of a truck and talking about what’s down the road is much more ominous when you know how she died. A lot of the book is in dialogue, and I corrected things according to what I was able to hear when Bessie sang… It’s that tone, that sound which is in me.” No other blues singer could challenge her.

Mo’Nique: Now we’re so afraid to say, “I’m not going to use the big machine.” It may take a little longer [to build a career independently], but it works. Part of me wanted to have a little bit of the “Oh, no!” Maybe that’s me hanging out in Paris too much — I want that French ending. [Laughs.] I was actually very comfortable naked. [Pointing to her waist] These Spanx are tight.

Dee said “cut,” and we both had to look at each other and say, “Are you good?” We had to be still for a second because these women had come into that room and taken over to remind us of what we’re missing today.

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