The blues is a deceptively complex musical genre. It’s one where heartbreak and sorrow can be uplifting at the same time, and where the artist and audience find familiar ground in everyday struggles. Thus, it’s also the musical genre that’s the hardest to capture with real authenticity. No one understands the blues until they’ve had it themselves, and so, a movie about blues legend Bessie Smith comes loaded with the double task of telling her life story, while also infusing it with that intangible sensation of the blues. Unfortunately, “Bessie” is a mostly one-dimensional look at a complex woman that tends to favor sensation over substance.
Hopping from one incident to another, with brief interludes to repetitive childhood flashbacks that ultimately do little to add to the drama, the story kicks off in 1913 as Bessie Smith (Queen Latifah) dreams of singing stardom, but lacks a presence or voice of her own. One fateful evening she witnesses a performance by Ma Rainey (Mo’Nique) and it’s not long until Bessie barrels onto her train and asks for a shot to learn from her, and earns a spot on her traveling show. Rainey takes a shine to Bessie and the two become fast friends. A montage sequence later, their friendship has eroded as Bessie’s star rises to dazzling heights and she strikes out on her own solo career.
What follows is an unfocused picture, one that wants to address the complex racial issues of the day, while also having a rootin’ tootin’ good time indulging in Bessie’s bad behavior. This makes for an often jarring viewing experience. Bessie isn’t given enough character background to justify her quick arc from timid newcomer to brassy, confident stage star, which seems to happen almost overnight. Equally, Bessie’s wild ways and swinging emotions — affairs with both men and women, punching people out, breakdowns, boozing — also often arrive unexpectedly, with little in way of buildup or texture to give them dramatic weight. And with the movie racing from one biographical moment to the next, there’s rarely a needed opportunity to allow the story beats to breathe.
This is particularly damaging when it comes to the thematic core of “Bessie.” Within the African-American performing community at the time, the lightness or darkness of one’s skin would help or hinder in getting a job on stage, an issue which is glanced upon for far too briefly, before the story moves on. Langston Hughes (Jeremie Harris) pops up in one brief scene to warn Bessie about the expectations of blacks that even “cultured” northern whites have, in another thematic thread that’s left dangling. Meanwhile Oliver Platt’s turn as tastemaker Carl Van Vechten will be lost on anybody who doesn’t know who that is. And that also goes for a third act appearance by John Hammond (Bryan Greenberg). Then there are the aforementioned flashbacks, which seem to build up toward a grand revelation, only to be mostly forgotten about as the movie winds into the final reels.
One gets the feeling the source of the problems of focus start with the script of “Bessie,” a project which has been in the works for decades. Director Dee Rees is co-credited with the late Horton Foote (“To Kill A Mockingbird”) on the story, and credited again on the script along with writing team Christopher Cleveland and Bettina Gilois (“Glory Road,” “McFarland”) — that’s four different scribes and perhaps not surprisingly, the movie runs on a rushed narrative, crammed with characters, that rarely evinces the powerful intimacy that made Rees’ breakout feature “Pariah” so exceptional. The production values also do a disservice to the film. Alternately glossy and cheap, the backlots and soundstages lack a certain grit from the era, with everything gleaming a bit too brightly. Overall, the settings look like the finished product from an antique restorer’s dream. If Bessie’s life was ragged, it would appear her surroundings were always polished, even in the worst conditions.
The cast, however, are highlights, managing to stand out even if the movie rarely pauses to allow them to do so. Indeed, Queen Latifah makes the most of the opportunity of the huge range of emotions and big scenes she gets to play in “Bessie.” She swaggers fearlessly through much of the movie, but it’s the vulnerability she finds at Bessie’s core that really allows the actress to keep the character rooted in reality. One particular wordless sequence of Latifah sitting nude in front of a mirror staring herself down will deservedly earn plenty of chatter. But it has to be said that the lead of the movie is outshone by Mo’Nique. Her turn as Ma Rainey is warm, engaging, and hugely enjoyable, conveying the singer’s confident elder stateswoman status with ease, but also allowing her fears and flaws to surface when they need to. The scenes with Mo’Nique and Latifah are easily the film’s best and most layered, suggesting the kind of more thoughtful picture “Bessie” could’ve been, and the kinds of quiet moments the film needed more of. It’s also in these sequences where one really feels the presence of Rees behind the camera, crafting the kind of simple, evocative, character moments that put her on the radar in the first place.
It’s telling I haven’t yet mentioned the wide array of other players who appear — Michael Kenneth Williams as Bessie’s husband Jack, Khandi Alexander as Bessie’s older sister Viola, Mike Epps as Bessie’s lover Richard, Tory Kittles as Bessie’s older brother Clarence — marking the notches in the singer’s life, but without making too deep of an impression. Indeed, “Bessie” knows all the right words, but hasn’t quite learned how to sing them just yet. [C-]