Critics’ Connection: Bessie

BessieBessie offers an intimate look at the determined woman whose immense talent and love for music took her from anonymity in the rough-and-tumble world of vaudeville to the 1920s blues scene and international fame. Capturing Bessie’s professional highs and personal lows, the film paints a portrait of a tenacious spirit who, despite her own demons, became a celebrated legend.  Source:  poptower.com.  Photo Source:  rogerebert.com.

Starring Queen Latifah (Bessie Smith), Michael K. Williams (Jack Gee), Tika Sumpter (Lucille), Khandi Alexander (Viola), Mike Epps (Richard), Mo’Nique (Ma Rainey), Charles S. Dutton (William “Pa” Rainey), Bryan Greenberg (John Hammond), Oliver Platt (Carl Van Vechten).  Directed by Dee Rees. Screenplay by Dee Rees, Christopher Cleveland and Bettina Gilois and story by Dee Rees and Horton Foote.

What the critics are saying about Bessie:

Variety:  A star vehicle and then some, Bessie casts Queen Latifah as blues singer Bessie Smith, in a big, bold movie that’s as vibrant, raw and musical as it is unfocused and messy. Dispensing with the customary closing note about Smith’s life, director Dee Rees’ long-simmering biopic is somewhat episodic in charting Smith’s rise and fall, but it’s sprinkled with wonderful supporting performances to augment a central tour de force that seems destined to drown out the rest of the longform field come awards time.

Smith is introduced at the peak of her 1920s stardom, before flashing back to the point at which she breaks in, by befriending blues legend Ma Rainey. After performing as an opening act, she strikes out on her own, with her career receiving a turbo-boost when the brash Jack (Michael Kenneth Williams) walks into her life and announces that he intends to be her man.  The performances are splendid throughout, starting with Latifah, whose gutsy embrace of the role requires laying herself bare in every way imaginable. In addition to standout turns by Williams and Mo’Nique, the supporting roster includes Khandi Alexander as Bessie’s estranged sister and Tory Kittles as her doting brother.  See full review at Variety.com.

Robert Ebert:  HBO’s Bessie, is a flawed drama that nonetheless warrants a look simply because of the bright spotlight it gives the underrated talents of star Queen Latifah, who does quite easily the best work of her career here. This sexually-charged, intense look at Blues icon Bessie Smith often feels defiantly episodic, as if co-writer/director Dee Rees is purposefully trying to sketch a portrait of a life in incomplete brush strokes, but Latifah, who is in nearly every scene, never falters in her portrayal of a woman who was too edgy, too real, and too tough to be famous before the world came crashing down around her.

Reportedly in the making for 22 years from a script by Horton Foote, it’s easy to see why Bessie was a film inevitability. This is a great story of a relatively unheralded talent. And everyone involved should be grateful that Queen Latifah agreed to take on this challenging role, one that she had reportedly been circling for over a decade. She is powerful, fearless, and, when needed, vulnerable in a role that could easily win her an Emmy and a Golden Globe.  Bessie is best appreciated as a character/performance piece. Like you would if you went to an actual Blues concert, just enjoy the star in the spotlight, sharing some of herself and some of the visions of her songwriters in every note.  See the full review at rogerebert.com.

Billboard:  For nearly two hours, Bessie transports the viewer to the ­cultural heart of the 1920s and ’30s, rich with luxurious ­adornments: fur shawls, pearls, boas, fringe and bowl hats with jeweled brims. The music puts you there too — the groans of blues songs like Smith’s “Down Hearted Blues” convey the type of misery that rattles bones, and Latifah sings them ­convincingly. Though the film is alluring visually and aurally, any deeper historical context — the Great Depression, KKK attacks, Prohibition — gets swallowed up by Smith’s oversize presence. By primarily depicting the singer’s big and brash side (vulnerable moments are rare), Bessie opts for a narrow focus rather than sweeping strokes, but this is more of a missed ­opportunity than a major flaw.

Essentially, Bessie is an educational tribute centered around a legend’s refusal to sell out. In one feverish scene, after Smith is stabbed in the street, she leaps from her hospital bed and says the show must go on — and even with the film’s minor cracks, it’s a riveting one.  See the full review at billboard.com.

Note:  The content of this post is adapted from the primary sources as referenced above.  Click on the links to read the original reviews in their entirety.

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