Joyful Noise

I'm a big fan of both Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton. I mean, when they're in quality stuff. Not everything is gold. The two of them haven't been in close proximity in my pop culture world since that disappointing flick of 2012. Until now! By happenstance, I happened to catch the two divas in a single weekend, though it was in different movies that are separated by several years.

The first was the new HBO movie Bessie, which was about legendary blues singer Bessie Smith. I'll let you guess which of the two actresses starred in that one. I never knew much about Smith, but for some reason, I had an image in my head of a matronly lady who picked her way carefully through life in order to avoid making waves. Boy, I couldn't have gotten that more wrong. She made more waves than the Pacific Ocean. She drank and fought and slept with with whoever caught her fancy, either male or female. She was totally awesome.

If only the movie about her could've been as electric. Queen Latifah is perfectly cast, but the movie makes the mistake a lot of biographical films do: Trying to cover too much material. If it had focused on one time period or one aspect of Smith's life, the material would have had space to breathe. Instead, we lurch forward at a breakneck pace in order to cover as much as possible, resulting in scenes that are too shallow and brief.

There are times when it slows down, and when it does, Bessie shines. The explorations of the relationships between Smith and her paramours may be rushed, but her relationship with Ma Rainey (Mo'Nique) is terrific. Ma Rainey was, by turns, Smith's mentor, her enemy, and her closest friend, and the scenes between Mo'Nique and Queen Latifah are fantastic.

There's plenty to like besides that, too. The music is, obviously, a treat. There are some funny one-liners that I'll be quoting for days. The clothes are beautiful. As something to kick back and watch with a friend and some mimosas on a Sunday afternoon, I couldn't have asked for better, but if I'm assigning it a grade based just on its success as a movie, Bessie could have used a rewrite.

This is where this business of grading puts me into kind of a pickle, because is the 1992 Dolly Parton vehicle Straight Talk a better movie than Bessie? No, not really. But it unquestionably does a better job of achieving what it was going for, which is to highlight Parton as a funny, warm, folksy heroine.

Parton stars as Shirlee Kenyon, an unappreciated Arkansas dance teacher whose boyfriend treats her like garbage, and who gets fired from her job as a dancing instructor for being an overly chatty busybody. She's a plucky gal, of course, so she sees this as an opportunity for a fresh start, grabbing what little she has and heading for Chicago. Because this is a romantic comedy, a series of mishaps and misunderstandings has her landing ass-backwards into a gig as a radio shrink.

James Woods is the reporter who smells a rat, and sets out to expose her as a fraud, but can't help but falling helplessly in love with her. Actors often like to complain about being pigeon-holed into certain types of roles, but we often forget that pigeon-holing can be a good thing. If you don't believe me, sit back in amazement and watch James Woods attempt to play a comedic, romantic leading man here. I like him a lot, but he needs to stick to playing creepy weirdos. Hugh Grant, he is not.

Much like Bessie, there are some funny lines and some enjoyable music. It's a silly movie, to be sure, but as cinematic comfort food, it hits the spot.

Bessie: B-
Straight Talk: B


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