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Queen Latifah takes long road to ‘Bessie’ film

When Queen Latifah was approached 20 years ago to play Bessie Smith, she had to do some research.

“I was Queen Latifah the rapper. I had no idea who Bessie Smith was,” the singer-actress told the Television Critics Association this week.

Since then, she’s been thoroughly schooled in the life and talent of the legendary blues singer, whom Latifah, 44, finally gets to portray in the HBO film “Bessie.”

Her music “may be almost 100 years old, but it has a power a lot of artists could learn from today,” Latifah said. Smith herself would be a success if she were a contemporary artist, Latifah said of the singer who died in 1937 at age 43.

“Bessie,” whose cast includes Mo’Nique, Michael Kenneth Williams, Khandi Alexander, Mike Epps and Charles S. Dutton, will air this spring. A date was not announced.

The film was directed and co-written by Dee Rees and includes among its producers Lili Fini Zanuck and Richard D. Zanuck, who first brought the idea of a Smith film to Latifah. Richard Zanuck died in 2012.

‘Chicago’ burns with talent

When Kander & Ebb’s Tony Award-winning musical Chicago finally hit the big screen in 2002 after a few failed attempts (including proposed versions rumored to star Liza Minnelli and Goldie Hawn), it was a massive success. The winner of six Oscars, including best picture, Chicago seemed to signal the return of the big-screen movie musical. 

Neither of the lead actresses in the film Chicago — Renée Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones — was known for her musical stage work. But under the direction of Rob Marshall, the duo glittered as murderous jazz-age mamas Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, respectively — and Zeta-Jones took home an Oscar for her work.

Now available in a Blu-ray+DVD+Digital HD/Ultraviolet Diamond Edition, with more than two hours (!) of new content, Chicago is holding up better than the city it’s named for. Bill Condon’s inspired Oscar-nominated screenplay transforms wannabe performer Roxie’s musical numbers into effective flights of fancy. As inmates, Roxie and Velma compete for the spotlight and the sympathies of the public and the press. They sing and dance to their (and our) hearts’ content.

Supporting players John C. Reilly (as Roxie’s “invisible” husband Amos), Queen Latifah (as warden Mama Morton), Christine Baranski (as newspaper columnist Mary Sunshine) and Richard Gere (as unscrupulous lawyer Billy Flynn) all make the most of the Kander & Ebb songs, including “The Cellblock Tango,” “All That Jazz,” “Mr. Cellophane,” “Razzle Dazzle” and “Nowadays.”

Special features include commentary by Marshall and Condon, which offers fascinating insight into the film. You’ll also find the deleted “Class” scene, and much more.

At the Grammy Awards…a mass wedding. Video link

The Recording Academy’s voters mined some of pop music’s biggest hits to send an open-hearted message at the Grammy Awards, honoring French electronic music pioneers Daft Punk for teaming with R&B legends to make a hybrid album that celebrated both genres, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis and Kacey Musgraves for espousing gay rights and Lorde for her anti-swag message to the masses.

Daft Punk and collaborator Pharrell Williams won four awards, including top honors album and record of the year, and best new artists Macklemore and Lewis matched that with four of their own. Lorde won two awards for her inescapable hit “Royals.”

Beyond their awards, each offered one of the more powerful moments at the Sunday night ceremony at Staples Center in Los Angeles. Lorde performed “Royals” wearing black lipstick and fingernail polish with little production, standing in opposition to the large-scale presentations from some of the night’s other performers. Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel De Homem-Christo of Daft Punk continued the celebratory feel of their hit, record of the year “Get Lucky,” by asking Stevie Wonder to join them with Williams and Nile Rodgers in a colorful performance. And Macklemore and Lewis invited 33 couples, including some of the same sex, to get married with Madonna serenading them and Queen Latifah presiding.

The moment brought tears to the eyes of Keith Urban and though the robots don’t reveal themselves or speak in public, they had feelings about it, too, asking producer Paul Williams to relay their thoughts.

“It was the height of fairness and love and the power of love for all people at any time in any combination, is what they wanted me to say,” Williams said.

The robots, clad in formal white suits and masks, spent much of the night humorously deferring to collaborators as they stood on stage. The job of spokesman often fell to producer of the year Pharrell, who guessed his way through a couple of acceptance speeches. “I suppose the robots would like to thank …,” he joked before noting, “Honestly, I bet France is really proud of these guys right now.”

Their “Random Access Memories” was the year’s event album, capitalizing on both the growing popularity of electronic dance music and the presence of popular music figures like Rodgers and Pharrell. They beat out reigning pop queen Taylor Swift, the odds-on favorite to win the award.

The award helps to square The Recording Academy with the burgeoning dance music crowd, who’ve been waiting for a major win since the Bee Gees’ 1977 “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack, the last dance LP to win album of the year.

“If you go to the headwaters of EDM, electronic dance music, you’ll find them,” Paul Williams said.

Rodgers said the duo richly deserved the win after taking years to put the album together as they sought authentic musical moments that can only be recorded live by real musicians.

“The fact that they decided to put this much effort into the music and bring in musicians, it shows that they had an incredible vision and they believed that you actually achieve something greater by doing that,” Rodgers said. “I happen to believe in that philosophy, too, that as a composer I can write a composition but when people interpret that composition it gets better.”

Hours earlier, it looked like the day might belong to Macklemore and Lewis, a couple of virtually unknowns from Seattle who dominated the pop world with three huge hits that were wildly different and rivaled “Get Lucky” in popularity – “Thrift Shop,” “Can’t Hold Us” and the gay rights anthem “Same Love.”

They won three awards during the Grammys’ pre-telecast ceremony – rap song and rap performance for the comical “Thrift Shop” and rap album for “The Heist,” beating out Drake, Kendrick Lamar, Jay Z and Kanye West in that category before taking major award best new artist. They’re just the third rap act to win best new artist, but their wins in the rap categories are sure to chafe average hip-hop fans – especially after Kendrick Lamar failed to win an award despite seven nominations. The Recording Academy’s own rap committee tried to exclude Macklemore and Lewis from the genre’s categories before being overruled.

Queen Latifah, who was certified by the state of California to perform the wedding ceremony, spoke out after the show about rap being more inclusive.

“I think this is exactly what hip-hop is capable of,” she said. “When I started rapping it was much more common for rappers to speak about different things going on in the world. We’re part of the reason that apartheid (in South Africa) was changed. … Or violence in the communities or anything that was some type of social injustice we’ve always been able to talk about through hip-hop.”

Musgraves explored similar themes to take home country album for “Same Trailer Different Park” and country song “Merry Go `Round,” categories that Swift seemed destined to win given her history with the Grammys. Musgraves also performed a neon-inflected version of “Follow Your Arrow,” a song that includes the line “Kiss lots of boys/Or kiss lots of girls/if that’s something you’re into” among other socially conscious messages.

And then there’s the curious case of Lorde, the New Zealand teenager whose invitation to ignore all the status symbols and swag signifiers of pop music in her song “Royals” was one of the year’s out-of-nowhere hits. She took major award song of the year and best pop solo performance.

The singer shyly summed up the experience in just a few words during her acceptance speech: “Thank you everyone who has let this song explode. Because it’s been mental.”

On the Web

Video: 

http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/macklemore-madonna-perform-same-love-674168