”Livin’ for Love: The Natalie Cole Story” just as well could have been called “Livin’ for Drugs.”
In the opening scene of this autobiographical movie, which airs at 9 p.m. tomorrow on NBC, we hear Natalie (played by Theresa Randle at that stage of her life) having a tirade in a burning Las Vegas hotel. The year is 1981.
“If I’m going to die, I’m going to die getting high,” she screams at her companion, who has prevented her from going into the smoke-filled corridor.
Therein lies the story of Nat King Cole’s namesake. Unfortunately, the movie never gets past the melodrama to chronicle Natalie’s experience properly. The script lacks depth and character development.
We also see little interaction among family members except for Natalie and her adored father (played by James McDaniel), who died from smoking too many cigarettes when she was 15.
Few, if any, happy family times are shown, despite the Coles’ affluence and prominence in the entertainment world when many black entertainers were struggling financially. The family lived in a big house and had a chauffeur. Young Natalie went to boarding school.
Nat King Cole was the first black to have a national TV show, which was dropped for lack of sponsors. He began as a jazz pianist, but his silky-smooth baritone vocals were what brought him lasting fame.
Natalie is talented, pampered and held to high standards of deportment, but viewers never get a clear understanding of what brought on her drug problems — her relationship with her parents, the family’s affluence or some other unexplained force.
Instead, we see a few touching scenes, such as when her father lets Natalie perform on stage with him and when he catches her dressed up in her mother’s evening gown and singing into a lipstick tube in the bedroom.
There also is a scene in which Nat tells his young daughter about the relationship with his wife Maria’s family: “Your mother’s family thinks we’re too poor, too dark and too Baptist. My family thinks they’re too hoity-toity.”
The show never shows the schism between the two families.
Throughout the movie, directed by Robert Townsend (of the TV show “The Parent ‘Hood”), the story line is stopped as the camera cuts to Miss Cole, who tells the audience what it should be thinking. Sometimes she gets downright preachy about what viewers have just seen. These verbal asides are distracting as a technique for storytelling. Miss Cole also plays herself, from 1984 to the present, in the movie.
Natalie wants to follow in her dad’s footsteps, but her mother (played by veteran screen actress Diahann Carroll) objects. Miss Carroll’s Maria is beautiful and aloof, a characteristic she maintains throughout the movie, so we never get to know her. She is, however, protective of her husband’s legacy and vehemently objects to Natalie’s becoming a singer.
With little sense of herself as a young woman, Natalie goes off to Amherst College in Massachusetts, where she becomes a premedical student, starts singing in a local club and starts taking heroin.
“We drank Harvey Wallbangers, dropped orange sunshine and acid. I never performed sober. It was great. I have always been a stupid, reckless, curious little girl,” narrator Natalie says.
So goes her story. The movie includes graphic depictions of students shooting heroin and cuts to Natalie, who says, “The first time I tried it, I loved it.” She becomes addicted to heroin and later to freebasing cocaine.
The rest of the movie is more of the same. We see Natalie freebasing in her aunt’s bathroom after leaving rehab at Hazelden. We see her going through the New York City ghetto to get a fix from her supplier. She gets high with a friend at home while her son, Robbie, nearly drowns in the swimming pool. We see her high in performance on Aug. 13, 1975, when she recorded “This Will Be,” which became a hit.
As Grammy Awards pile up, she sinks deeper and deeper into the morass of drugs. She drags her minister husband, Marvin Yancy (played by Randy J. Goodwin), into the drug scene with her. He is the songwriter-producer responsible for many of her hits, starting with “Inseparable,” her debut album, which won two Grammys.
The movie makes her appear cavalier about doing drugs with no dire consequences.
Interspersed in this drug-laced saga, we hear the smooth baritone voice of Nat King Cole as he sings “The Christmas Song,” which has become a classic. Miss Randle gives a spirited and passionate performance as Natalie the singer and the addict. Despite the movie’s flaws, the actors do an excellent job.
We also are treated to Miss Cole singing “This Will Be.” After seeing this movie, one wonders how she really sounds sober.
The final scene of creating the father-daughter duet “Unforgettable” would have ended the movie on a high note, but narrator Natalie had to have the last word. “I don’t know why God blessed me with a second, third and fourth chance, but I’m trying not to waste it,” she says.
WHAT: “Livin’ for Love: The Natalie Cole Story”WHERE: WRC (Channel 4) and WBAL (Channel 11)WHEN: 9 p.m. tomorrowRATING: Reviewer recommends young people not be allowed to see this movie, which is like a primer on how to get involved in drugs.