THE BIOPIC "Bessie"
WHEN | WHERE Saturday at 8 p.m. on HBO
WHAT IT'S ABOUT Bessie Smith (Queen Latifah) sees Ma Rainey (Mo'Nique) perform, and the heavens open wide: THIS is what she wants to do. Rainey agrees to take her on, in something of an apprenticeship role, and the lessons begin. Rainey tells her that the blues are basically the same three chords, over and over: "So what makes people want to hear [them] from you?" Advice is given and embraced: In time Smith becomes the Empress of the Blues, signed by Columbia to its "Race Label," and eventually married to Jack Gee (Michael Kenneth Williams), her partner, manager and (originally) muscle. Not that she needed muscle -- Bessie knew how to take care of herself.
MY SAY Latifah's always good and so little surprise that she's good here, too. A gifted actress with range, she projects inner beauty and warmth or -- when the need arises -- cool distance. When the need further arises, she has a right hook that can flatten a grown man. She flattens a couple here.
What's missing, oddly enough, is Bessie Smith.
Who exactly WAS the Greatest Blues Singer in history? Dee Rees' film -- based on a story by Horton Foote (who died in 2009) and script by Christopher Cleveland -- obviously has the basics in place. She was hard-drinking, and hard-throwing. She backed down from no one -- Ma Rainey, or Klansmen or record executives. She was bisexual. She was tough. She had inner pain. She had inner strength.
But those are just the dots on a connect-the-dot portrait that are never quite connected. The reason they are not is because director and lead want to tell a story rather than answer the question -- the one about greatness. There are only a handful of performances in "Bessie," all competent, even good, none rising to the level of an actual answer. Among her many talents, the most notable -- or at least the one that made Latifah world-famous in the first place -- is the voice. She barely lets it out of the barn here.
"Bessie" demands that you take the artistry for granted, and engage the story instead -- of a black woman in Jim Crow America who blasted her way through obstacles but could never begin to salve her inner pain, with either alcohol or lovers.
Powerful story. A shame "Bessie" rarely conveys the story's emotional wallop.
BOTTOM LINE Well-made biopic absent a whole lot of music and -- as a result -- much emotional resonance.