Sunday, January 24, 2016

Toni Braxton: Un-Break My Heart (LINK Entertainment, Lighthouse Pictures, Lifetime, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Lifetime’s much-ballyhooed “world premiere” last night was Toni Braxton: Un-Break My Heart, a biopic of the R&B/soul singer who came from a hard-core Black church background (like Aretha Franklin, she was the daughter of a minister) in a suburb near Baltimore (coincidentally — or maybe not — Billie Holiday was from Baltimore) and had a super-strict upbringing during which she had to sneak into her bedroom and listen clandestinely to the local Black (secular) music station, though her mother’s maiden name had been Jackson and apparently as she was growing up she at least fantasized being a relative of those Jacksons. She heard enough R&B that she developed some favorite artists, including Anita Baker and En Vogue, and she was the first of her parents’ six kids, brother Michael (named after their father) and sisters Traci, Towanda, Trina and Tamar. (The alliterative names really got to me; when you consider that Braxton named her own sons Durham and Diezel, the Braxtons seem to have a fetish for oddball names rivaling the Palins.) Fortunately Lifetime showed a Beyond the Headlines episode about Toni Braxton after the show, satisfying our curiosity (at least those of us who hadn’t been particular fans of Toni Braxton during her glory years — I no doubt saw and heard her on the Grammy Awards and elsewhere but I couldn’t for the life of me have identified her voice or linked it to any of her trademark songs) as to whether it was accurate. The film, directed by Vonda Curtis-Hall (from the name I’m assuming she’s a Black woman) from a script by Susan McMartin, mostly traces Braxton’s real-life story, though there are some engaging complications in the real story that didn’t make it into the movie.

In reality Braxton was discovered by a gas-station attendant, William E. Pettaway, who was also a part-time record producer and got the five Braxton sisters a recording contract with a label called Steeltown, distributed by Clive Davis’s Arista imprint. Alas, their contract wasn’t for a whole album, just a single, and they were dropped from Arista when their single, “Good Life,” wasn’t a hit. Then the legendary producers L.A. Reid and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, who’d been key to launching the career of Whitney Houston (also an Arista artist), auditioned the Braxtons but decided to sign only Toni as a solo artist to their new Arista-distributed imprint, LaFace Records. Toni had to weigh her own ambitions against her commitment to her family — the movie didn’t mention this but the Beyond the Headlines doc said her mom was furious that she’d even consider abandoning the family act — and in the film Edmonds (Gavin Houston, who’s hot-looking and as legendarily “baby-faced” as the man he’s playing) tells Toni (played quite eloquently by Lex Scott Davis, no doubt with Toni Braxton dubbing the vocals à la The Jolson Story) that Michael Jackson didn’t let his loyalty to his brothers stand in the way of his solo career (though in fact the Jackson Five were a hit-making group for Motown well before Michael emerged as a solo star). Toni eventually lets them talk her into signing with LaFace Records as a solo artist, and gets a lucky break early on when Anita Baker turns down a song called “Love Shoulda Brought You Home” for the soundtrack of the Eddie Murphy movie Boomerang. Baker suggests instead that Braxton, who had recorded the demo of the song, should sing it on the record. As things turned out, the Boomerang soundtrack included Braxton’s “Love Shoulda Brought You Home” as well as a duet between her and Babyface, “Give U My Heart” (title presumably influenced by Prince, who was fond of giving his songs names like “I Would Die 4 U” and “4 the Tears in Your Eyes” that anticipated the abbreviations people use while texting), and its success paved the way for Braxton’s 1993 debut album, Toni Braxton, which was “primarily produced by Reid, Babyface and Daryl Simmons,” and which sold 10 million copies, hit #1 on the Billboard album charts and won three Grammy Awards, including Best New Artist.

The biopic starts out as a pretty standard rechanneling of The Jazz Singer as Toni Braxton shocks her family not only by recording secular music as a solo artist but going after a sex-diva image, including a virtually naked cover photo on Vibe magazine as well as an ultra-revealing dress she wore to the Grammy Awards, as well as having her breasts artificially enlarged. “You let them cut your body open?” her mom tells her with all the warmth and understanding of God reading off the title characters of the film of The Ten Commandments. It works for Braxton as her second album, Secrets, outsells her first — 15 million copies — and contains what becomes her signature song, “Un-Break My Heart,” a power ballad by power-ballad specialist Diane Warren which Toni turned down at first but became a huge hit. She embarks on an extended tour with her sisters as backup singers and a band behind her whose leader and keyboard player, Keri Lewis (André Hall), she falls in love with and eventually marries — but not before either miscarrying or aborting their first child (the McMartin script is ambiguous on this point) because she was fearful an anti-acne cream she’d been using could lead to the baby being born with a birth defect. (At least that’s the official story McMartin went with; the Beyond the Headlines doc hints that the abortion happened well before Toni and Lewis got together and that another man was the baby’s father.) Where it leaves the template of The Jazz Singer and starts seeming like a cross between a soap opera and a Pearl White serial is what happens after that; Toni had been merrily spending money from what her bosses told her was an “artist’s fund,” not realizing that the money was merely an advance against her royalties and she would have to pay it back. She used this money occasionally for personal luxuries (including a $2,000 silverware set from Gucci) but mostly to put on a really elaborate show, including her sisters, a dance troupe and elaborate staging and lighting effects. Though playing to sold-out crowds, the tour lost money because of its huge overhead and, unwilling to cut back on her production, Toni is forced to cancel it midway through because she isn’t being supported either by the record company or an outside sponsor. The movie doesn’t mention this, but the doc indicates that what woke Toni up to all the money she was losing was when she got her latest record royalty check — for only $2,000 since the overhead and deductions had eaten up the rest — and she’s forced to sue the record companies, both Arista and LaFace (including her beloved mentors), to get her contract settled and renegotiated. Babyface, though technically on the other side in the lawsuit, helps her out by testifying that if he’d been presented such a contract as an artist, he wouldn’t have signed it. Eventually Toni is forced to declare bankruptcy, and marshals from the bankruptcy court come in to seize just about everything she owns — including her awards — before the record companies offer her a $20 million settlement and a new contract, but only on condition that she keep it secret for 10 years.

The miseries of Toni continue as she finds herself unexpectedly collapsing at moments of high stress; she turns out to have lupus (though she doesn’t go public with it until 2010) and her son Diezel has autism; in order to have a relatively stable home life and be able to spend time with her kids instead of dealing with the stress of touring, she accepts a long-term job doing a show called Toni Braxton Revealed at the Flamingo in Las Vegas — only to have to give it up after nearly two years when her lupus gives her a sudden heart attack, forcing her to close the show and declare bankruptcy again after it turns out her insurance policy was mis-drafted and did not cover her in case she wasn’t able to perform due to her disease. The program closes with Braxton’s brief “retirement” from music in 2013 (after she left LaFace Records and had a series of flops on other labels, then told reporters she’d lost interest in music and planned to devote herself to acting in the future — though her ambitions as an actress are oddly not mentioned in McMartin’s script; it also doesn’t mention her Broadway run as Belle in the stage version of the Disney musical Beauty and the Beast, though given what a nightmare it would have been to license the rights from the notoriously greedy and litigious Disney company, it’s not surprising they didn’t document this part of her career in the fiction film!) and the outpouring of support from artists like Barbra Streisand, Madonna, Prince and Anita Baker telling her to hang in there and keep singing, recording and doing concerts. Toni Braxton: Un-Break My Heart (named not only after her signature song but a memoir she wrote using the title) is a quite capable movie, rather unoriginal but at least genuinely moving even though I was never that big a Braxton fan — I must have heard her and I certainly remembered the name, but it didn’t really register with me and I would have a hard time telling one Toni Braxton song from another or her records from those of her soul-dance diva consoeurs. It was certainly a better movie than the Whitney Houston exploitation pic Lifetime premiered a few months ago, not only because Toni Braxton was considerably more grounded than Whitney as a person (despite Whitney’s similar background as the daughter of church singer Cissy Houston, who later sang backups for Aretha and Elvis) but because it presented her story relatively matter-of-factly and didn’t cherry-pick it for emotional tirades the director could start at 11.