HBO decided to take on the immense task of creating a biopic film on the life of Bessie Smith.

Bessie Smith was easily the most popular Jazz Blues singer of the 1920s and 1930s and her influence was far greater, influencing Jazz Blues singers to follow and reaching to the 1960s with Janis Joplin citing Smith as her biggest influence.

With a running time of 115 minutes, the film does a fantastic job of telling Smith’s story, although falls short in some areas, and succeeds in areas far greater than some Hollywood biopics, namely “Get on Up”  about the life of James Brown.

The trauma of Smith’s abusive childhood is a theme touched on throughout the entire movie and is presented in an effective, organized way.  A childhood that motivates Smith to become incredible generous, including randomly adopting a seven year old orphan, allowing friends and family to live in her lavish house, and giving a little girl twenty dollars to encourage her to pursue singing.

Bessie

Queen Latifah as Bessie

The film doesn’t pull any punches when presenting the racist nature of the times.  Simple, yet effective there are subtle reminders throughout the film.  The colored only section at the train station.  Some reminders hit you across the face like a left hook.  Maybe the most jarring is the ad for race records, complete with blackface cartoon.  Or the comparison of skin tone to a paper bag when Smith auditions for the role in a vaudeville show.

However, accurately portraying the woman Smith was is one of the faults of the film.  It is documented that Smith was a rough and tumble individual.  While the movie does portray Smith as a hard drinking, bisexual, individual who would never back down from physical altercation, it seems to exaggerate this side.  Finally, while Smith did lead the lavish lifestyle, it is noted she was at times oblivious to it.  There is noted story of Smith dragging her expensive coats along the sidewalk.

The film also takes some liberties in how pivotal singer Ma Rainey was early in Smith’s career, and completely ignores her work with Louis Armstrong.  That may not seem like a big deal, but Armstrong and Smith, together and separate were so important to the role of jazz development.  A modern day comparison would be Taylor Swift teaming with Sam Smith.  Or Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters teaming with Beyonce.

The film shows the triumphs and tragedies of Smith’s career, including a brief glimpse of her struggle with the Great Depression, and the second wave of popularity in her career.  With all of the loose ends seemingly tied up, the film ends in a very Disney fashion.  Bessie and her husband, sharing a bottle of Coke, anticipating what the future may hold.

This is the movie’s biggest flaw.  As I mentioned earlier, the running time of this movie is 115 minutes.  HBO could have taken an extra 30 minutes to firmly establish Smith’s legacy and told the story of her tragic death, and in the process, ease a lot of rumors.

Bessie Smith died tragically in a car accident.  Various accounts are as follows.  Her husband fell asleep and hit an oncoming truck.  Smith was thrown from the vehicle.  The couple may have gotten assistance from someone who drove by the scene of the accident.  She may have been ignored and while lying on the ground, nearly had her arm amputated by an oncoming car, unaware of the dire situation.  She may have been saved if she wasn’t refused at the “Whites Only” hospital she was taken to.  There is still a bit of mystery surrounding her death.

After Bessie Smith was buried, her grave went unmarked for decades until Janis Joplin bought the grave marker in 1970.

The Disney style ending hurts the film.  The conclusion seems rushed and attempts to wrap everything up in a nice little manner.  Despite this fault, it is a story that needs to be told, and should be viewed.  Musicians such as Bessie Smith seem to be forgotten outside of a listening audience that thrives Blues and Jazz music, while feverishly collecting scratchy 78 RPM records.

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