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Brian Gibson, 59; Filmmaker Known for Biopics of Josephine Baker, Tina Turner

Times Staff Writer

Brian Gibson, an Emmy-winning British documentary filmmaker who earned acclaim in America for his biopics of Josephine Baker and Tina Turner, has died. He was 59.

Gibson died Sunday in a London hospital after a two-year battle with Ewings Sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer.

Adept at developing stories of the lives of musicians, Gibson was best known to American audiences for his 1991 HBO production, “The Josephine Baker Story,” starring Lynn Whitfield, and the 1993 feature film based on Turner’s autobiography, “I, Tina,” titled “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” starring Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne.

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The Baker story, describing the European superstardom of early 20th century American dancer and singer Josephine Baker, earned Gibson an Emmy for best director.

“You have to look at what it was about [the subject] that made him compulsive and ambitious and wanting to transcend the ordinary,” he told The Times in 1994, discussing his success in showing the warts-and-all lives of successful musical entertainers. “You have to establish a hole in a person’s spirit, some damage from which that talent springs. They need that special motor, a fuel that pushes them to greatness, that pushes them in doing ordinary, everyday work to the extent that they become extraordinary.

“You have to approach film biographies in a fashion that you’re doing more than a biopic. It’s not a National Geographic tour through someone’s life, like she’s the Grand Canyon.”

Depicting Tina Turner’s mistreatment at the hands of her drug-abusing husband, Ike, seemed especially risky, he said, except that many witnesses confirmed her accounts. Gibson said Ike Turner showed up on the set one day, to the crew’s consternation, but was “very mild, very sweet,” prompting kinder treatment in Gibson’s movie.

Times film critic Kenneth Turan, in a review of “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” wrote that Gibson “knows how to infuse the energy of the music into this often hokey story, and he is discretion itself when it comes to handling the film’s drug use, judiciously focusing not on the substance but on fingers with the odd habit of wandering toward the nose.”

Gibson made his debut in feature-film directing in 1980 with “Breaking Glass,” a depiction of the British punk rock scene. He ended his major career efforts in 1998 with another small independent, music-oriented film, “Still Crazy.” But unlike his earlier works, the film starring Stephen Rea, Bill Nighy and Billy Connolly was a comedy.

“ ‘Still Crazy,’ an irresistibly uproarious and heart-tugging tale of a British rock band attempting a comeback 20 years after breaking up, offers the warmth, humor and wisdom of ‘The Full Monty,’ ” Times reviewer Kevin Thomas wrote. “Gibson is an impassioned storyteller who knows how to integrate musical numbers deftly into the plot and how to get socko performances from a wide array of actors. He knows how to go for broke in the big emotional scenes and when to pull back for those crucially quiet, subtle moments.”

Born in London, Gibson attended Cambridge University intending to become a doctor. But he gravitated instead to films and went to work for the BBC, creating medical and scientific documentaries for the celebrated science series “Horizon,” a prototype for PBS’ “Nova.”

For the BBC, he directed dramatist Dennis Potter’s “Where Adam Stood” in 1976 and “Blue Remembered Hills,” starring Helen Mirren, in 1979. The latter film earned Gibson a British Academy of Film and Television Arts award for directing.

Wooed by Hollywood, he made his U.S. directing debut with the less than stellar 1986 film “Poltergeist II: The Other Side.” Scoring far greater success in U.S. television, he directed several movies and miniseries, notably “Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story” in 1989 and “Drug Wars: The Camarena Story” in 1990.

In 1996, Gibson directed the feature film “The Juror,” starring Demi Moore and Alec Baldwin, and in 2002, he was executive producer for the film “Frida.”

Gibson is survived by his wife, the former Paula Guarderas; two daughters, 2-year-old Raphaela from his current marriage, and Grace, 12, from his brief marriage to Whitfield; his mother, Victoria; and a sister, June.

Memorial services are being planned in London and in Los Angeles.


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