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Author Topic: Bessie on HBO  (Read 2833 times)

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Offline wreid75

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Bessie on HBO
« on: February 19, 2015, 06:09:47 PM »
Bessie Smith is being played by Queen Latifah and Ma Rainey is being played by Mo' Nique.  I am hoping that this doesn't suck.


http://queenlatifah.com/fun/entertainment/queen-latifah-hbo-films-bessie-smith/

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3704352/

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Bessie on HBO
« Reply #1 on: February 20, 2015, 06:02:16 AM »
There maybe a Full Cast & Crew but not one citation for Chris Albertson. Hmm

Offline David Kaatz

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Bessie Smith biopic in the works
« Reply #2 on: April 30, 2015, 10:21:59 PM »
Apologies if this has been covered already. Heard about it on NPR. Starring Queen Latifah! Who actually probably has the talent to pull off the singing, and maybe the acting as she has been doing light movie roles for a while now.
http://www.npr.org/2015/04/28/402850016/how-bessie-smith-ushered-in-the-jazz-age

Dave


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Offline tinpanallygurl

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Re: Bessie Smith biopic in the works
« Reply #3 on: May 01, 2015, 01:11:05 PM »
And it unfortunately appears as if no one gives a flying *$&#.  Sad really sad

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Bessie on HBO
« Reply #4 on: May 02, 2015, 06:48:43 AM »
Topics merged.

I'm sure lots of people will be keen to see this project, and I'll be curious to see how it's all treated. I hope it has more substance than that Christian McBride interview though.

Offline Johnm

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Re: Bessie on HBO
« Reply #5 on: May 02, 2015, 09:35:56 AM »
Queen Latifah can sing really well.  She did some terrific Jazz singing in the movie "Living Out Loud" from a few years back.  And as Dave said, she's a natural at acting.  I'm not normally a huge fan of biopics, especially of musicians or artists, but it will be interesting to see how this one turns out.
All best,
Johnm

Offline Stuart

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Re: Bessie on HBO
« Reply #6 on: May 02, 2015, 01:00:38 PM »
No question about QL's talent. As John says, it was prominent in "Living Out Loud." Hopefully the production will be faithful to Bessie's life and talent as well. We don't get HBO, but the film will be probably be available at some point, and I look forward to watching it. In the meantime:


Offline Mr.OMuck

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Re: Bessie on HBO
« Reply #7 on: May 02, 2015, 10:59:11 PM »
I found the Christian McBride interview depressing as I invariably do when jazz people talk about the Blues. More Blues people need to speak up and speak to the great differences between the two musics rather than whatever family resemblance jazz musicians insist is there.
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Offline iwbiek

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Re: Bessie on HBO
« Reply #8 on: May 03, 2015, 01:16:06 AM »
I found the Christian McBride interview depressing as I invariably do when jazz people talk about the Blues. More Blues people need to speak up and speak to the great differences between the two musics rather than whatever family resemblance jazz musicians insist is there.
Amen!  I'm so sick of blues being talked about as if it were nothing more than an antecedent of jazz.  People tend to forget that not all blues players approved of jazz or even considered it real music.  Wolf scornfully referred to jazz as "bleep-blop."  Little Walter apparently could match jazz trumpeters (or saxophonists? can't remember) note for note on harmonica, yet never condescended to record any jazz.  And Muddy said WHO was blues's baby?  Wasn't jazz...  Yet to hear jazz musicians and jazz critics, you would think blues was the John the Baptist to jazz's Jesus Christ.  Jazz is considered great simply because much of it is so esoteric (read: unlistenable) that people are afraid they might be stupid if they don't stand in awe of it.

Offline iwbiek

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Re: Bessie on HBO
« Reply #9 on: May 03, 2015, 01:25:51 AM »
I'm just afraid this is going to perpetuate the "Ma Rainey kidnapped Bessie and taught her everything she knew" myth.  There's way to much emphasis on the guru relationship in careless blues scholarship already, which detracts from the originality of the artists.  I'm talking about rubbish like dividing early Chicago blues into those influenced by Charley Patton, like Wolf. and those influenced by Son House, like Muddy, as if blues can be divided into neat little "schools" with "founders."

Everything I've read about Bessie tells me she played disciple to nobody, nor would she ever train anyone to "chop her head" later on.

Offline CF

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Re: Bessie on HBO
« Reply #10 on: May 03, 2015, 09:39:34 AM »
I found the Christian McBride interview depressing as I invariably do when jazz people talk about the Blues. More Blues people need to speak up and speak to the great differences between the two musics rather than whatever family resemblance jazz musicians insist is there.
Amen!  I'm so sick of blues being talked about as if it were nothing more than an antecedent of jazz.  People tend to forget that not all blues players approved of jazz or even considered it real music.  Wolf scornfully referred to jazz as "bleep-blop."  Little Walter apparently could match jazz trumpeters (or saxophonists? can't remember) note for note on harmonica, yet never condescended to record any jazz.  And Muddy said WHO was blues's baby?  Wasn't jazz...  Yet to hear jazz musicians and jazz critics, you would think blues was the John the Baptist to jazz's Jesus Christ.  Jazz is considered great simply because much of it is so esoteric (read: unlistenable) that people are afraid they might be stupid if they don't stand in awe of it.


You need to listen to more Jazz! Billie Holiday is unlistenable?!?! :)

I'm looking forward to this, hope it's a good production
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Offline Mike Billo

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Re: Bessie on HBO
« Reply #11 on: May 03, 2015, 09:49:17 AM »
 I've hated every musical biopic I've ever seen, because it's never about the music (Which is what I'm interested in)
 It's never about the musical evolution of the performer(s),  who played on what record, who wrote and arranged songs, where the songs came from, the "process" of how it became finished product, etc.

It's always about who they slept with, what they ate for breakfast, their unhappy childhood, their unhappy marriages, drug or alcohol problems, they got ripped off....blah, blah, blah, blah, blah
  What a yawn.

   Biopics about Musical Artists are extremely formulaic, to say the least

I get HBO and I'll watch it, but I have no illusions about it being anything other than what I've described, above

Offline iwbiek

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Re: Bessie on HBO
« Reply #12 on: May 03, 2015, 11:38:16 AM »
You need to listen to more Jazz! Billie Holiday is unlistenable?!?! :)

No, of course not.  I love Billie Holiday.  Love Ella too.  And Nina Simone.  And Mose Allison is one of my all-time favorites.  I was mostly talking about the endless jamming of instrumental jazz, be-bop in particular but even dixieland is often guilty of this.  This is precisely the type of jazz that people like to get snooty about.  I don't hate ALL instrumental jazz: Miles has moments, particularly on Porgy and Bess, and I like Django and Charlie Christian, but so much of it is just...unlistenable.  Except maybe as background while you're working around the house or something.

Offline David Kaatz

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Re: Bessie on HBO
« Reply #13 on: May 03, 2015, 04:54:31 PM »
You need to listen to more Jazz! Billie Holiday is unlistenable?!?! :)

...  I was mostly talking about the endless jamming of instrumental jazz, be-bop in particular but even dixieland is often guilty of this. 

Not that there's ever any endless jamming when listening to blues, right?
 ;)

Offline iwbiek

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Re: Bessie on HBO
« Reply #14 on: May 04, 2015, 12:13:52 AM »


Not that there's ever any endless jamming when listening to blues, right?
 ;)

Sure there is, but if you can dance to Miles Davis's "Jack Johnson" album, you must be from another dimension! ;)

Seriously, though, in my experience blues fans are, on the whole, less pretentious than jazz fans (especially jazz fans that talk condescendingly about the blues), so they're more likely to acknowledge an artist is taking it too far.  Buddy Guy is often rightly criticized for his never-ending instrumentals (and I love Buddy Guy), and, as has been pointed out many times before, if you can honestly sit in an easy chair and listen to one of John Lee's late '70s "endless boogie" numbers, appreciating every nuance of 8+ minutes of one chord, without your mind wandering, you should be breaking codes for the military.  Of course, that's the reason why John Lee keeps saying, "We can boogie, we can dance all night, good party record, etc."--it's not supposed to be listened to sitting down, looking oh-so-hip, with shades on!

I don't know, maybe the demise of the 78 is to be blamed for all this: in the old days, it was 3 minutes and you're done!  (Well, most of the time...)

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Bessie on HBO
« Reply #15 on: May 04, 2015, 05:06:05 AM »
If we could get back to Bessie, that'd be great.

Offline Mike Billo

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Re: Bessie on HBO
« Reply #16 on: May 04, 2015, 07:12:03 AM »

 Getting back to Bessie.......found a Daily Mail article on this biopic in which Queen Latifah says she had never heard of Bessie Smith, when she was first offered the role.
Also says the film "will centre on how Smith overcame her turbulent personal life"

   This does not sound promising
         

   

Offline Stuart

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Re: Bessie on HBO
« Reply #17 on: May 04, 2015, 12:27:04 PM »
Thanks for the tip on the Daily Mail article, Mike. I think she was referring to when she was first offered the role at age 22, however. There's a YT video link:



And on the right there are other short videos in which the actors talk about the characters they portray in the film.

Offline Mike Billo

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Re: Bessie on HBO
« Reply #18 on: May 04, 2015, 12:55:56 PM »

 Thanks, Stuart. Just had a look at the clips you suggested.

  It looks far worse than I had suspected. I'll pass on this altogether.
  As incongruous as it seems, in the eyes of these film makers,music doesn't seem to play a role in the story of Bessie Smith.




Offline Stuart

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Re: Bessie on HBO
« Reply #19 on: May 04, 2015, 01:35:51 PM »
I agree, Mike. While one could make the case--as we've done here before--that there's no such thing as bad publicity if it gets people (who would not have done so otherwise) to explore Bessie Smith and her music, the clips don't exactly inspire a whole lot of optimism.

Offline iwbiek

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Re: Bessie on HBO
« Reply #20 on: May 04, 2015, 10:50:37 PM »
In my opinion, this should be one of those films where they get up-and-comers who haven't really made names for themselves yet, so the focus is completely on the characters and not the actors as the characters.  Call me cynical, but I know enough about the inept racism of Hollywood that casting Queen Latifah and Mo'nique to me just screams, "We need big black women and these are the only ones with any cred right now."  I mean, Queen Latifah's pretty old to be playing Bessie, isn't she?  Is anybody attached to this project who's actually an expert on Bessie?  Derrick Stewart-Baxter must be rolling in his grave...

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Bessie on HBO
« Reply #21 on: May 05, 2015, 05:56:12 AM »
Straying off topic slightly.

I recall attending the premier of the 1976 Leadbelly movie at London's Leicester Square Odeon directed by Gordon Parks. Some TV actor I'd never heard of played the lead role. It wasn't well received.

Somewhere I still have all the bumf which was given out at the premier. I may start a new topic and post some of it here.

Offline iwbiek

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Re: Bessie on HBO
« Reply #22 on: May 05, 2015, 06:51:17 AM »
Ugh, that Leadbelly movie was awful.  I especially hate how they made Lemon so clownish.

Offline Mike Billo

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Re: Bessie on HBO
« Reply #23 on: May 05, 2015, 07:58:07 AM »

 I think you've hit the nail on the head, Iwbiek.

  The casting probably went something like this: "We need a large Black Woman" and somebody replied "Oprah!" and the first person responded with "No. We need somebody we can afford", followed by...."Uhhhhhh...Queen Latifah?.."

Offline wreid75

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Re: Bessie on HBO
« Reply #24 on: May 05, 2015, 11:02:02 AM »
It's always about who they slept with, what they ate for breakfast, their unhappy childhood, their unhappy marriages, drug or alcohol problems, they got ripped off....blah, blah, blah, blah, blah   What a yawn.

I wish we had more of the biopics especially if done as a series where a life isn't squeezed into two hours.  Peoples lives are all about their childhoods, marriages, failures, successes, abuse or silver spoon, rich and/or poor, gay/straight/both, happy/sad, good/bad/or just mean as hell, personality quirks, closeted skeletons, misconceptions, truths/falsehoods, destitution and redemption.  People are more than what their fingers, feet, and vocal chords were able to do and these things changed what they did with said body parts.  Here is to hoping that Leadbelly, Patton, Bukka, Ma, Mammie, everyone labeled Blind ___________, all those nicknamed fat/slim/son, all those nicknamed texas/mississippi/memphis, howlin' muddy, and honeyboy all get their time on the silver screen.

Offline iwbiek

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Re: Bessie on HBO
« Reply #25 on: May 05, 2015, 01:48:45 PM »
I just hope they include a scene with Bessie going, "Move, goddammit!  Move!"   ;)

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Bessie on HBO
« Reply #26 on: May 06, 2015, 08:34:12 AM »
I just hope they include a scene with Bessie going, "Move, goddammit!  Move!"   ;)
Or even her "Hold on; let me spit". Unfortunately for her Harry Pace was not amused at her need to expectorate in the middle of a song and summarily ending her recording test, dismissing her on the spot. His offended sensibilities were to lose him a potential fortune.

Offline wreid75

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Re: Bessie on HBO
« Reply #27 on: May 08, 2015, 12:04:42 PM »
I am looking forward to this for the exact reasons other people are not.  They could get a bunch of musicians to dress up in  period pieces of clothes and perform a concert of her music as best as they can and lots of people who are all about the music would be delighted.  This is about the story, the story (being her life) that actually played a part in how she sounded.....imagine that.  The fact that she appears in the trailer as a hot mess is awesome cause.............................well she was a freaking hot ass mess!  Queen is perfect even though she is a lil older cause she does look a lot like her and has pipes and can sing.  Critics are calling this the role of her career already.  I find it odd that blues fans tend to cannibalize our own, if you don't think so review some other posts on other threads or ask Randy Meadows.  Even GDW got it last week unprovoked.  We are getting the Emperess of the blues on screen for a few hours, even if it is fake.  For someone born in the 70s who missed out on her music live this is something I am happy about it.  For those that love the music but couldn't give two cents about the story behind the scenes, chill out with a glass of your favorite spirits and an old 78 of her rocking it with the snap crackle pop.  If this is a success we might continue to see some more movies that don't have anything to do with legba and a crossroad. 

Offline Mike Billo

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Re: Bessie on HBO
« Reply #28 on: May 08, 2015, 07:56:32 PM »
  I find it odd that blues fans tend to cannibalize our own

    Based on past biopics and how Hollywood has treated the Blues as subject matter, I think it's a little odd to brand a healthy skepticism as "cannibalizing our own"
    None of us are obligated to embrace anything and everything that purports to have Blues related content and
    we're not heretics for questioning it
   
    So TV critics are already calling it the role of Queen Latifah's career, you say?
    It sounds like you're a lot more impressed with Queen Latifah than I am and that's cool. We can agree to disagree. I hope you enjoy the show.
  I look forward to reading your thoughts on it after it airs
     
 

Offline iwbiek

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Re: Bessie on HBO
« Reply #29 on: May 10, 2015, 08:45:47 AM »
Just how many serious roles has Queen Latifah played?  It's not like we're talking about Angela Bassett here.  The "role of her career" is not saying much.  And sorry, I don't think she looks anything like Bessie. 

And how are we "cannibalizing our own"?  Again I ask, is there ANY reputable blues scholar attached to this project?  So far, I think the biggest problem with any "blues" movie (and I for one contend there's never been one) is that "our own" are not consulted enough!
« Last Edit: May 10, 2015, 12:57:37 PM by iwbiek »

Offline waxwing

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Re: Bessie on HBO
« Reply #30 on: May 10, 2015, 10:58:03 AM »
(and I for one contend there's never been one)





This truly great "blues" movie was discussed at length on Weenie Campbell here: http://weeniecampbell.com/yabbse/index.php?topic=8223.msg66826#msg66826

Wax
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Offline Stuart

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Re: Bessie on HBO
« Reply #31 on: May 10, 2015, 11:24:03 AM »
Here's the link to the entire film:



I'm interested in the "whole person" as well, but my question is will the HBO film be an accurate portrayal of Bessie's life as it was lived or that of the imagination of the screenwriters, film crew, et al, for the purpose of entertainment on commercial TV? Or some combination of both? To be fair, I'll wait and see.

Wax: Ever since I first saw the film at UVM  in the early 70's, I've been an aspiring tray spinner--Not there yet, but one can still dream, I guess...

Offline waxwing

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Re: Bessie on HBO
« Reply #32 on: May 10, 2015, 11:36:27 AM »
I noticed that, too, Stuart. That film is just such a celebration of spirit on so many levels and it amazes me that a film of black musicians was made at this time in history at all, but also that it seems to be of such better quality artistically than other films of the time. I posted on that thread, which was active while I was in school and too busy, just now so maybe it'll get a little more discussion.

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Offline iwbiek

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Re: Bessie on HBO
« Reply #33 on: May 10, 2015, 12:54:40 PM »
I stand corrected, and I am aware of that film, though I haven't yet seen it.  I guess I was thinking along the lines of a more recent feature film that truly does justice to the blues.  Or prewar blues, at least.  While I found it problematic in some ways, I did enjoy "Cadillac Records," but of course it's not about prewar blues.

Offline Stuart

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Re: Bessie on HBO
« Reply #34 on: May 10, 2015, 04:10:00 PM »
I  have  "St. Louis Blues" on the Kino "Hollywood Rhythm V.1: Best Of Jazz And Blues" DVD, which is unfortunately out-of-print. It contains many other excellent performances that are worth watching if you can find a copy.

http://www.venerablemusic.com/catalog/TitleDetails.asp?TitleID=4576

All of the "shorts' were made for the movie theaters and my guess is that they were not thought to be of great historical value when they were made. It's been a long time, but when I saw it at UVM (by accident), it was part of a film class and I vaguely remember the prof. pointing out and discussing the technical aspects of the film (as mentioned by Wax in the other thread).

Other films that may be of interest are those by Spencer Williams (Jr.). Some are available on Youtube and other sites. IMHO, the quality of the films is can be somewhat uneven, but worth watching nonetheless.

Offline jpeters609

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Re: Bessie on HBO
« Reply #35 on: May 14, 2015, 08:20:38 AM »
A review of the HBO Bessie Smith movie, from the Village Voice:

http://www.villagevoice.com/2015-05-13/film/hbo-bessie-review/
Jeff

Offline Suzy T

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Re: Bessie on HBO
« Reply #36 on: May 24, 2015, 09:35:35 AM »
So, did anyone see this movie and if so, what did you think?

Offline Mike Brosnan

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Re: Bessie on HBO
« Reply #37 on: May 24, 2015, 10:19:14 AM »
I struggled to make it through about an hour or so... I'll probably finish watching it someday while I'm cooking or cleaning or practicing. My low expectations were met. :)
I guess it could help expose more folks to good music, so that's positive. I'm not very knowledgeable about Bessie Smith, so I had to go to google to gauge historical accuracy. There seems to be a predictable amount of embellishment, but I did learn a couple things about her that I didn't know. Your mileage may vary.

Offline frankie

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Re: Bessie on HBO
« Reply #38 on: May 24, 2015, 10:49:54 AM »
I couldn't get through the whole thing in one sitting, either.

It was kinda forgettable. I forgot I saw it at all until this thread popped up again!

It seemed as if the movie suggested at the end that she actually performed at the Spirituals to Swing concert...  that would have been wonderful, but I'm pretty sure she had passed away before the first one took place. Admittedly, my attention had woefully flagged by the time the movie got to that point.

Queen Latifah's Bessie was not uninteresting, anyway (she can clearly sing, to boot, and spent some time with the source material), and it was fun to see Ma Rainey portrayed dramatically. Boy would they ever have got my attention if they had managed to squeeze a nod to the Pruitts, Papa Charlie Jackson or Blind Blake in there, but rabid country blues nerds are clearly not ANYONE's target audience. :) At least not anyone who expects to make rather than lose a buck.

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Bessie on HBO
« Reply #39 on: May 24, 2015, 12:07:34 PM »
I was tired when I watched it, and like Frank and Mike note, this didn't do a great job waking me up, though the first 15-20 minutes did manage to get my attention, mainly because they hit you with a lot of music, Ma Rainey, and a brisk pace to the storytelling and editing -- the latter ultimately failing the movie in the end.

Queen Latifah and Mo'Nique were both very good in their roles and the music was not overly modernized. They didn't have the Pruitt Twins or nothin', but from what I recall,  it didn't sound like a bunch of contemporary jazz cats who couldn't give a rat's ass about the 1920s either. Chris Albertson gave the thumb's up to Latifah's interpretations of the songs in the NY Times, saying, "it's the closest I've heard anyone come to Bessie Smith."

The main problem with the film, like many biopics, is that there is just not really enough time to tell the story well in a two hour movie. I'm not even talking about the "right" story, whatever that is, just a properly paced interpretation that's able to develop some of the many threads that get introduced. It would quite possibly have been more interesting as a 2 or 3-part miniseries, something where the HBO format can really shine. Early versions of the script were supposedly based on Albertson's book, but how much of that remains is not clear, since it has been kicking around for decades. I suspect not a lot, but it doesn't mean his work was being ignored (or not known).

BTW, Queen Latifah was a producer who seems to have been calling many of the shots on this, the director is Dee Rees, a relatively young black woman, and the large cast is 95% African American, so as an example of racist Hollywood, the film is something of a failure.

It did make me curious to check out Rees' film Pariah, and I will probably watch at least some of Bessie again when less tired.


Offline Mike Billo

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Re: Bessie on HBO
« Reply #40 on: May 24, 2015, 01:14:17 PM »

   I too, couldn't get all the way through it.
   I have nothing good to say about it.

Offline Gumbo

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Re: Bessie on HBO
« Reply #41 on: May 25, 2015, 09:41:27 AM »
Watched it in one sitting and enjoyed it. I haven't read Chris' book so I guess I could suspend disbelief long enough to get into the story being told. It seemed to be making an effort to get all the highlights in, so i agree about the "too much in too little time' critique. I also enjoyed the scenes with Queen Latifah and Mo'Nique the most. They really got across a feeling of two strong dynamic people willing to have friendship and friction.The rest of the movie somehow didn't get the same edge. I felt the music was treated with respect and although I'd have loved more detail and songs I realise there would have been a risk to attempting that.

EDIT one thing that did bug me was how clean everywhere looked. Did they have no dust back then?

Uncle bud is your comment about racist Hollywood in response to something earlier in the thread? it seems an odd way to phrase it. I'm curious what you mean.
« Last Edit: May 25, 2015, 10:09:44 AM by Gumbo »

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Bessie on HBO
« Reply #42 on: May 25, 2015, 03:06:38 PM »
Hi Gumbo - yeah, just a reference to something earlier in the thread. Not to deny Hollywood's race issues (and sexism issues, and ageism, and ageism that leads directly back to the sexism). Just that with a black producer, director, and mostly black cast, this probably isn't a great example of it.

Offline stevedenver

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Re: Bessie on HBO
« Reply #43 on: May 26, 2015, 06:38:02 AM »
i watched it last night and enjoyed it.
i am fine with license to make a subject more entertaining.

i dont expect musicology 101.
it did give me great feel as to the impact of the blues in the era , as it became more widely available to white audiences.

i thought the vocals were great , but not bessie or ma.
i thought it conveyed the social environs for blacks as i percieve them...the wild west if you will. and a great period piece in terms of costumes etc...the us version of masterpiece theatre...with a bottle of hootch and a straight edge razor...

some of the scenes were gorgeous, one remniscent of r johnson in the hotel, in feel furniture and angle.

i look at this as another great way to bring a taster to a much broader audience, especially whites, young, and non blues listeners.

« Last Edit: May 26, 2015, 06:43:11 AM by stevedenver »

Offline CF

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Re: Bessie on HBO
« Reply #44 on: June 10, 2015, 06:08:03 AM »
Finally got around to this, I'm a big Bessie fan.
Yeah not much to say. Very standard story telling. Focusing on Bessie's alleged lesbianism (Ma's too). It has what I call a suffocating reality, the world translated comes across kinda small, scenes feel like they're happening on sets, the audiences seem overly receptive & movie 'on'. also, I'm pretty sure they conflated Ma Rainey with Gladys Bentley?? Ma Rainey didn't wear a man's suit & perform, do we know?
I'll never watch this again, I'd say.
Stand By If You Wanna Hear It Again . . .

Offline banjochris

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Re: Bessie on HBO
« Reply #45 on: June 10, 2015, 09:20:18 AM »
I haven't seen the movie yet, but I don't like "biopics" in general, mostly because someone's entire life doesn't necessarily make for well-structured drama, and well-structured drama isn't very satisfactory as a documentary to learn about someone's life. I do plan to watch it.

Mostly I dropped by to say that I don't know if Ma Rainey ever actually dressed as a man to perform, but I'm sure if they included that the filmmakers would have been inspired by this:

http://jasobrecht.com/ma-rainey-the-mother-of-the-blues/

scroll down and look at the ad for "Prove It on Me Blues."

Offline Chris A

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Re: Bessie on HBO
« Reply #46 on: December 22, 2015, 11:20:45 AM »
Racist? You bet it was?black actors portraying stereotypical uncle toms is as racist as Jolson in blackface, perhaps even more so.

When I accidentally came across my name in HBO press release inspired items in Variety, Hollywood Reporter and other publications (some even had an image of my biography), I called Zanuck's office to find out what was going on. I got an answering machine, but HBO Films called me the following day and asked me if I would read the script and come to their NYC office to tell them what I thought of it. I agreed and promptly received the screenplay (5th draft) via e-mail. It was appallingly clueless, from beginning to end, revealing no knowledge of Bessie Smith, her life, or the era in which she became a major star.

I went to the meeting at HBO. There, seated around a conference room table, were five or six people, only one of whom, the writer/director, Dee Rees, was black. Each had a closed (probably unread) copy of my book before them. They told me how much they enjoyed the book and how fortunate they were to have found Ms. Rees after rejecting attempts by other writers. They also informed me that shooting would begin in Atlanta in six weeks and that Rees was working on the final draft.

Accompanying me to the elevator, the head of HBO Films (a truly charming lady) said she was aware of my negative feelings about the script and asked me to suggest improvements. I accepted her offer of a consultation fee, na?vely thinking that it would lend weight to my suggestions, which filled several pages and covered only the most grievous mistakes but, in essence, highly recommended that Reese suffer the pink slip fate of her predecessors and that a professional writer be given the opportunity to take it from square one. I suggested that, for the sake of expediency, a new treatment be based on Horton Foote's 1974 script.

Horton was commissioned to write a film treatment of my book when one by Melvin van Peeples totally missed the mark. I liked Horton's approach, but thought it a bit old-fashioned, cinematically. Still, it captured Bessie and the era beautifully. After Horton died, his daughter, Hallie Foote, took the script to the Zanuck office, which made a deal with HBO?that's how that came about. The HBO credits contain "book by Horton Foote," but he would cringe if he saw this awful film?just as I did when HBO arranged a screening for me.

Unfortunately, I agreed to sell the film rights to Horton. He had purchased his script back from Columbia Pictures and he needed the book rights if he was going to do anything with it. I made a huge mistake there, but I never foresaw what would happen. I still cannot fathom why Horton's daughter (not in need of money) did this to her father's memory.

There is much more, but suffice it to say that only one of my suggestions was implemented: I told them that Bessie would not have dashed into a bar and ordered "a vodka collins on the rocks"! The other distortions and fantasies were left intact?Rees apparently was determined to make her second film another black lesbian story, and so she did.

That said, the only redeeming factor was the music, but I attribute that to the Music Director, Evyen Klean, the only person involved who showed a genuine concern for getting it right, the only member of the production crew who consulted me.

I had recommended Queen Latifah to the late Richard D. Zanuck back in the Seventies, when he wanted to make this film with Horton as the writer. He gave the then relatively unknown rapper a screen test back then and the result was encouraging. This year, she told interviewers that she had carefully researched Bessie Smith, but?other than the singing?there is not the slightest evidence of that.

Few writers embrace another's film treatment of their work, but nobody can expect to see a literal conversion to film. This HBO production, however, didn't even come close. Horton (with whom I got along splendidly) nailed it with his adaptation of "To Kill a Mockingbird" and he came close to doing so again with "Bessie," but they totally destroyed it.

The sad thing is that many years will probably pass before anyone brings the true Bessie story to a screen?if it ever happens.

Offline Gumbo

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Re: Bessie on HBO
« Reply #47 on: December 23, 2015, 04:26:23 PM »
It's great to hear your side of the story, Chris. Kind of infuriating, too, knowing how much more realistic it could have been, but better to know than to guess. Thanks for posting.

 


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