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SUMMER SNEAKS : Tina Turner’s Story Through a Disney Prism : The singer’s film biography, ‘What’s Love Got to Do With It,’ focuses on her turbulent relationship with her mentor and ex-husband Ike Turner as well as her triumphant comeback

<i> Michael Walker is a free-lance writer based in Los Angeles</i>

The Park Plaza hotel in downtown L.A. has seen its share of bad acts since Hollywood discovered that its “Arabian Nights"-style ballroom makes a terrific movie set. It was here, for example, that Whitney Houston flung herself at an overstimulated concert audience while Kevin Costner’s crew cut turned white in “The Bodyguard.”

On this day, the Park Plaza--choked with synthetic cigarette smoke and 154 extras eating chocolate mousse cake--is standing in for the Venetian Room at San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel, circa 1980, on a night when a down-on-her-luck Tina Turner brought her disco-and-oldies revue to town.

The scene is one of 11 musical numbers shot for “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” the biopic based on Turner’s harrowing autobiography, “I, Tina,” to be released by the Walt Disney Co.'s Touchstone Pictures June 9. Directed by Brian Gibson (who directed the HBO movie “The Josephine Baker Story”), the film stars Angela Bassett as Turner and Laurence Fishburne as Ike Turner, her ex-husband and former partner.

“This is the absolute bottom of her career,” says Gibson, slouched on a sling chair as Bassett girds herself for the umpteenth take of--yes, Turner actually performed it--"Disco Inferno.”

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Gibson yells action and a tuxedoed M.C. exhorts the polyester-and-pantsuit extras to welcome “an old-time favorite--Ms. Tina of the Ike and Tina Turner Revue!” The curtains part; dancers bump and hustle to magnificently cheesy disco choreography. Then, Bassett struts into the spotlight, dressed in one of the vampish stage outfits Turner lent the production. Lip-syncing the song’s awful lyrics to Turner’s prerecorded vocals, Bassett looks and moves astonishingly like, well, like Tina Turner herself.

But, Bassett says later, “I’m no imitator or impersonator. The emotional life--that’s my forte. Truth and honesty.”

Truth and honesty. With a biopic--especially a rock biopic--these are often highly relative terms. Do you make a squeaky-clean “Buddy Holly Story” and sanitize the star’s life? Or do you go the peyote-and-projectile-vomiting route of “The Doors” and bum everybody out with queasy pseudo-realism?

Much of Tina Turner’s story isn’t pretty. Before fleeing Ike for good in the middle of a 1976 tour and reconstituting herself as a solo cabaret act, Turner absorbed years of his beatings and flagrant infidelities. Given that “What’s Love Got to Do With It” was made for Disney, a studio hardly known for embracing unvarnished domestic violence, the movie is remarkably frank. To a man, and, in the person of Kate Lanier, the movie’s 28-year-old screenwriter, a woman, the filmmakers solemnly swear that the Disney suits didn’t try to bowdlerize the story’s seedier elements. “They kept saying to me, You wrote the first orgasm in Disney history,” marvels Lanier.

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But for all its grim moments--Ike beating Tina in a limo; Ike beating Tina in a recording studio; Ike beating Tina in their Baldwin Hills bedroom--"What’s Love Got To Do With It” has, as they say, a considerable upside. Unlike most musical legends whose life stories end up on film, Turner didn’t die in a plane crash (“The Buddy Holly Story”; Patsy Cline in “Sweet Dreams”) or extinguish herself with syringefuls of heroin (Billie Holliday in “Lady Sings the Blues”), although at one desperate moment with Ike she did attempt suicide.

Instead, Turner survived and wrote her own happy ending: In the audience at that Fairmont Hotel gig was an Australian artist manager named Roger Davies, who took on Turner as a client and oversaw the remarkable comeback that culminated in her smash 1984 album, “Private Dancer,” which sold 12 million copies and transformed her into a global superstar. Unambiguous against-all-odds stories are treasured in Hollywood, and, alone among its rock-biopic predecessors, “What’s Love Got to Do With It” ends with its heroine not only alive but thriving.

“We never envisioned it as a biography,” says Doug Chapin, the movie’s co-producer, “as much as a very dramatic story of a woman’s journey, from being a bright young thing to being caught in a destructive situation and then getting out of it and standing on top of the mountain, really.”

The filmmakers took considerable liberties compressing the 40-odd years of Turner’s life covered in the movie. Several scenes are composites of chronologically distant events, and branches of Turner’s family tree were simply ignored. (The birth of her first son, in 1958, fathered by a musician in Ike’s band before she became involved with Ike, is not mentioned.)

Perhaps most flagrant is the portrayal of “River Deep, Mountain High,” a song Turner recorded without Ike for producer Phil Spector, as a hit whose success so embittered Ike that it provoked another beating. In fact, “River Deep” was such a monumental flop that Spector withdrew from the music business for a time. (The song did, however, create a sensation in England and led to Ike and Tina’s invitation to open the Rolling Stones’ 1969 tour.)

“We leave a lot out,” acknowledges Gibson, who won an Emmy for directing “The Josephine Baker Story.” “If someone lives 60 years, let’s say--Tina’s lived 50-plus years--you’ve got two minutes a year. But a drawing of someone’s face, even if it has only seven lines, if it’s done by a really good artist, that person’s caught a truth by making certain choices. You take a line through a life, like the theme of desertion. Is that important to Tina’s life? I would say yes. So you emphasize it in terms of which scenes you develop.”

Turner herself is apparently resigned to the film’s factual deviations, although throughout the project’s lengthy development she made it clear she would not sanction a puff piece. “Disney?” Turner recalls the conventional wisdom after Touchstone purchased the rights to the “I, Tina” book. “Drugs and violence? They don’t do that kind of work.” One story that made the rounds had her telling Disney Studios chief Jeffrey Katzenberg: “Now, Jeffrey, there isn’t going to be any Mickey Mouse in this movie, is there?”

“I didn’t actually say that to Katzenberg,” Turner clarifies, although she does recall joking about the incongruity of the studio attaching itself to her story. And, she says, there were pressures to streamline certain elements of her life. “They wanted to take Lorraine out!” she exclaims, referring to Ike’s common-law wife from the couple’s early days in St. Louis, who once pulled a gun on Tina and then turned it on herself (she survived, as did the scene in the movie).

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During Turner’s infrequent visits to the production--the movie was shot in just under three months, mostly on locations in Los Angeles and Sacramento, reportedly on a lean $12-million to $15-million budget--she couldn’t resist making on-the-spot corrections. “She was right there,” recalls Bassett, sliding into Turner’s disarming rapid-fire drawl. “ ‘What suit are you wearing? You know, with this suit I wore zebra shoes.’ And she went to the store and bought me some shoes out of her pocket.” Once, concerned that a piece of wardrobe was “too old-fashioned,” Turner literally took the shirt off her back and gave it to Bassett.

“Tina takes her life seriously and wants things to be as accurate and true as possible,” says Gibson. “She’s not easy. She’ll tell you she doesn’t like something--you’ll get it from Tina very straight. But she’ll always do it in as gentle a manner as possible.”

“Tina has this train that goes about 90 miles an hour,” adds Daniel Carlin, the movie’s music supervisor, who coordinated re-recording Turner’s vocals for most of the songs used in the film. “We had to hop on board the Tina machine because she’s efficient and she’s got this method. She is a taskmaster, but she’s not nasty about it.”

Turner has not seen the completed movie and has no plans to do so anytime soon. She seems, by turns, both diffident and wary about its release. “Why do I need to see what Ike did to me?” she asks rhetorically. “I’ve never dwelt on it.” Then: “I’m not necessarily nervous about it--I’m all right. I’m just not in a big rush. I hate violence and I hate cursing--I don’t watch movies with that kind of stuff. It’s ugly.”

Others speculate that, having already told the story of her bad years in the relatively discreet forum of her book, Turner is ambivalent about it playing in thousands of theaters. “It’s a very difficult situation for Tina to have a movie made about her life while she’s still alive,” says Roger Davies. “It involves stuff from her past she’d rather not have brought up again.”

(Nevertheless, Turner has scheduled her first American tour in six years--it opens June 6 in Reno--to capitalize on the release of the movie and its soundtrack album.)

Whatever the film’s factual vagaries, its matter-of-fact tone and performances by Fishburne and Bassett, an acclaimed stage actress who appeared with Fishburne in “Boyz N the Hood” and as Malcolm’s wife in “Malcolm X,” lends it a sheen of emotional authenticity. Again and again, it returns to a central theme: the insidiousness of abusive relationships.

“The most fascinating thing to me about Tina is why, as a free woman with so many opportunities and so much talent, she chose to go back to Ike year after year after year,” says Gibson.

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The answer, says Turner, was simply that she had promised. Whatever his faults, Ike Turner was a dogged, visionary musician with an ear for writing hits (that others appropriated without crediting him) and for discovering and nurturing players who deserted him when their ships came in.

“He worked very hard,” says Tina, “and had been nice to me. I promised him I wouldn’t do that.”

So she stayed. “It was another time, another frame of mind,” she says by way of explaining the filmmakers’ “not being able to understand that some people can give their word and keep it.” The fact that she, at least in the beginning, was getting something from Ike was another consideration. “I was a church girl from Tennessee,” says Turner. “I didn’t know about being a star.”

In the end, Turner’s promise to Ike became a refrain running throughout the film. But Gibson thought he recognized other, darker threads in the fabric of Ike and Tina’s relationship.

“Meeting Ike Turner, who had been deserted, created a kind of lock-and-key mechanism of their relationship,” he explains. “In my view what Tina got drawn into was the Ike who had been hurt and ill-treated by the world. Tina had been deserted and treated unfairly herself. And I think she wanted to heal him. She wanted to make it better for him and be a star for him. But of course you can’t fix somebody else. You can put in more and more, but it’s kind of an emotional Vietnam.”

On this point, Turner agrees. “It becomes harder and harder,” she says. “You either try to kill yourself or you say, ‘It’s time to go.’ I did both. I tried to kill myself. And I got out of there.”

“What’s Love Got to Do With It” chewed through seven years, three screenwriters and two directors before it was finally greenlighted last fall on a hurry-up shooting schedule to get the movie into theaters in time for summer. Kate Lanier’s script alone went through 17 drafts. “We didn’t believe this movie was ever going to be made,” says Davies, the movie’s executive producer.

Touchstone originally assigned the script to Howard Ashman, a Tina fan and the Oscar-winning lyricist for Disney’s “Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast,” who wrote two drafts of the screenplay before his death in 1991. Former Rolling Stone reporter and current MTV news anchor Kurt Loder, the co-author of “I, Tina,” was subsequently approached by the studio but passed on the project. “They said they wanted it to be sort of an upbeat thing,” says Loder. “It just eluded me. I didn’t see how it could possibly be.”

The project drifted through yet another screenplay before coalescing around producers Chapin and Barry Krost, director Mario Van Peebles and Lanier. Earlier drafts of the script, according to Chapin and Lanier, had tended toward rigid biography. “They couldn’t get the movie to come to life,” says Chapin. “It was very structural, straightforward. The facts weren’t adding up to anything exciting.”

Lanier was hired partly to bring a woman’s perspective to the story. “It was Kate who had the notion of attacking it like a legend--a heroine on a quest and these were her trials,” says Chapin.

Lanier’s 17 drafts notwithstanding, Touchstone was apparently pleased. Then Van Peebles withdrew from the project to direct “Posse,” which opened Friday. Brian Gibson--in what Chapin characterizes as “a blessing from heaven"--parachuted in as director, and the movie was finally under way.

Casting the role of Tina was, predictably, a formidable undertaking. Having Turner play herself was never seriously considered, according to Chapin. Coldly commercial considerations were also at work. "(Touchstone) knew there are hardly any bankable female stars,” says Chapin. “A bankable African-American star? She didn’t exist.”

Three finalists tested for the role: Robin Givens, Halle Berry and Bassett, then fresh from playing Katherine Jackson in the ABC miniseries “The Jacksons: An American Dream.” Gibson and Chapin wanted Bassett. “Brian and I felt she was it, because she has some physical resemblance and she had the ability. We knew this part was going to take incredible acting.” For her screen test, Bassett was dauntingly assigned Ike and Tina’s signature number, “Proud Mary.”

Bassett and the film’s choreographer, Michael Peters, who toured with Tina during her cabaret days, began by studying a videotape of Turner performing an a cappella version of the song. “We just sat for hours and hours watching,” Peters says. “Then I’d say, OK, we’re gonna do just lips this time. And we’d do that. Then I’d say, this time fingers and hands. It was like neurosurgery.”

It worked--the “Proud Mary” test clinched the role for Bassett. With only 30 days to prepare before principal photography commenced, Bassett had to nail Turner’s stage moves on songs ranging from Ike and Tina’s first big hit, “A Fool in Love,” to Turner’s comeback smash, “What’s Love Got to Do With It.” Bassett also had to age convincingly from the gawky teen-ager at the beginning of the film to the strutting, confident Tina of the mid-'80s. “I was scared to death,” she says.

Entrusted to a personal trainer given to statements like “Linda Hamilton? When you see Angela you won’t even remember who Linda Hamilton was!” Bassett fastidiously dieted and pumped iron. (It’s doubtful, however, that even the famously robust Turner sported Bassett’s newly bulging bodybuilder’s arms, especially in the early ‘60s.)

Turner, in the meantime, was introducing Bassett to some of the verities of being Tina. “The roles I’ve done have been strong, supportive types: mothers, wives, that kind of thing,” Bassett says. “She’s exciting for me to play because I get to be glamorous.” But Turner had news for her. “She was laughing, ‘You’re gonna have all this fun but you’re going to have to wear all these black eyes,’ ” recalls Bassett.

“Tina came to my studio with these photo albums,” says Peters. “As she flipped through the book, she would say: “Oh, yeah, that’s the broken jaw.’ There was one picture and her face was completely lopsided, and Angela was like, “Did you get your jaw wired?’ And Tina said: ‘Jaw wired? I had to sing that night!’ ”

Meanwhile, Laurence Fishburne was allowing himself to be talked into playing Ike. He had problems with the script. Ike, says Fishburne, “wasn’t fully developed--kind of a cardboard cutout. They tried to establish him as charming and suave, and didn’t spend enough time with what went wrong. Or show what was happening inside him that made it go wrong.”

Gibson agreed. “When I first read the script I had two problems: Who is this guy Ike and why should I be interested in him?”

Playwright and screenwriter Williams Mastrosimone (“Extremities”) was brought in to beef up Ike’s part--"a man to do a man’s writing,” Lanier notes--and Fishburne extracted a promise that he could do “whatever was necessary” to give Ike’s part “more depth.” Did he use the prerogative? “With a vengeance,” he says.

Beyond securing his rights, the filmmakers have had little contact with Ike, who was jailed in 1990 on cocaine charges and served an 18-month term. He currently lives in Carlsbad. “I never spoke to him,” says Gibson. “I was not allowed to. Disney felt that it would not be a good idea.”

Ike recently surfaced in the pages of Vanity Fair, in which he told journalist Maureen Orth that he was preparing a new revue and denied that he had hit Tina “all the time. That’s the biggest lie . . . I didn’t hit her any more than you been hit by your guy.” Last November, he appeared on Whoopi Goldberg’s syndicated talk show. “When you look back at that guy in Tina’s book . . . what do you see?” Goldberg asked him. Ike’s reply was succinct. “Hell,” he said.

“He was not particularly welcome on this project,” Fishburne says. The actor’s only meeting was a brief introduction when Ike showed up at the Turners’ former home in Baldwin Hills during a location shoot. Ike signed some autographs and showed Fishburne his walk. “It was nice to meet him,” says Fishburne. “Regardless of his actions, he was so much a part of Tina’s life. The movie is about him just as much as her. It’s unfortunate that he wasn’t welcomed, that both of them weren’t around more.”

Gibson, in any event, already had his hands full with the surrogate Ike and Tina. “I’m very blessed--I have two wonderful actors,” he says. “That’s no schmoozing, they’re really exceptional.” Indeed, in her screen test, Bassett lost herself so thoroughly that she sprained her wrist and Gibson later found it prudent to reschedule a particularly grueling brawl with Ike to the end of the shoot--in a padded set.

“She’s so committed as an actress she’ll get into something and won’t know she’s hurting herself,” says the director. “She’ll dance her heart out until she’s limping off the stage. She’s got this real go-for-it mentality and you have to say to her, ‘Look, how do you feel? Can I go a few more takes?’ Otherwise, she’ll go and go without any complaint and you’ll suddenly look at her and her feet will be bleeding.”

Fishburne agrees. “She was the main reason I changed my mind about doing it--she’s one of the greatest actresses to come along. I felt my job was to come in and really support her and let her know that every step she took, someone was there to catch her.”

Says Bassett: “Brutality was a big part of Ike and Tina’s relationship. I trust Larry as a friend and actor. It’s been a wonderful collaboration because I know he’s not going to hurt me.”

Fishburne’s tender sentiments are in sharp contrast with the character he conjures on screen. His Ike degenerates from a suave, small-time boulevardier to a paranoid, coke-snorting bully. If Bassett’s feet bled playing Tina, Fishburne found himself increasingly weary taking on Ike day after day. “He was missing something, and that was the ability to be a really exciting front person,” he says. ‘He was cool but he wasn’t electrifying. He didn’t have it. And then he met this little girl who did and it really blew his mind, that she had something he didn’t. But he had the will and smarts and business acumen--she didn’t know how to do that. So they both fed off one another.

“The money, the style,” Fishburne adds, “he managed to hold that together early on. But then to have that all slip away piecemeal, to be able to watch yourself losing it. . . .

“He has been exhausting to play,” Fishburne says leadenly, as if just talking about Ike wears him out. “I would put his clothes on and put the goatee on and I would be tired.”

But even though she prevailed over Ike both in the film and in her own life, Tina Turner somewhat miraculously avoids vilifying him. Peters, the choreographer and confidant from Tina’s lean years, recalls her flipping through a photo album and suddenly coming upon a snapshot of Ike. “She got to this picture of him in an Afro and said, ‘I always thought he was so handsome in this--I told him so.’ The point is I’ve never, ever heard her say anything bad about him. But that’s why she is where she is, and who she is. Because she was really able to forgive and move on.”

Indeed, ask Turner if, with all the publicity surrounding the movie, she has found an occasion to speak to Ike, she replies instantly: “Ike and I have nothing to talk about. Now that I’ve cleaned up my life, what am I going to sit and talk to him about? How happy I am?”

Like Gibson says, Tina Turner gives it to you straight.


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