By Paul de Revere
In a moment of narration during Crazy Sexy Cool: The TLC Story— VH1’s much-touted TLC biopic that premiered Monday night (October 21)– Drew Sidora as Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins points out the blurring of “the lines that separated our music and personal lives.” And just as TLC’s career went, so did the movie that detailed it, blurring lines between what was fictionalized and what was real footage.
Clips from TLC appearances at the MTV Video Music Awards and GRAMMYs interweave with dramatized versions of ’90s music news to the point where it could be hard to tell the difference if you looked away from The TLC Story for a second. Sometimes, the difference was obvious, even from the film’s first scenes. Do the Instagram-glossy “home movies” of Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes (played by rapper Lil’ Mama, a spitfire actress) seem so authentic as to look like file footage? No. But does T-Boz’s dance off at famed ’90s Atlanta club Jellybeans feel authentic? Absolutely.
At moments, the movie must’ve felt like being through the looking glass for T-Boz and Rozanda “Chilli” Thomas (played by Keke Palmer). They produced and, evidently, had a spiritual hand guiding The TLC Story. Alongside director Charles Stone III they made sure no detail of the movie was overlooked. The TLC live sets are on point and the choreography tight. Screenwriter Kate Lanier, writer of the 1996 cult hit Set It Off, wrote dialogue so lived-in it felt like the movie’s actresses were improvising. The “Creep” video-shoot scene, with its members bickering about creative direction, features a spirited back and forth among the three actresses.
And it’s they– Sidora as T-Boz, Lil’ Mama as Left Eye and Palmer and Chilli– and the crew who recreated the TLC looks and eras (styling, makeup, continuity, props departments) who really shine. The I-can’t-believe-we-wore-that ’80 and ’90s fashions are pitch-perfect. The baggy fashions at the outset of the movie that over the years cling closer to the TLC ladies, just as their fame, business practices and at-times strained relationships do.
True to life or not, dramatic pivots in the lives of T-Boz, Left Eye and Chili’s lives are smushed together hurriedly. Lopes receiving her tragic news the day TLC is signed to a major label comes too soon for any serious emotional impact. The scenes of Chilli’s unplanned pregnancy and subsequent abortion would’ve benefitted from more time to explore the psychology of that, as hard and unfit for basic cable as that would likely be. Palmer’s whine of “Forgive me” as the blue surgical sheet is drawn over her is heartbreaking enough.
Maybe the best-dramatized part of TLC’s story is T-Boz’s beating of the odds over sickle-cell anemia. It’s brought to a dramatic climax wonderfully with a tearful scene from T-Boz and her mother, inspiring her to write “Unpretty.” Also well-executed, Lopes’ excessive drinking and tortured past with her father. It’s given to the viewer in dribs and drabs, eventually bursting with violence and paranoia, then sadness and resentment.
One thing The TLC Story does not gloss over is the crappy, 56-cents-per-unit-sold deal the best-selling girl group of all time got with LaFace Records. Stone helped producers T-Boz and Chilli show their work, too, with on-screen arithmetic that even viewers who hated math class can understand.
It feels like the two surviving members of TLC had a checklist they want to assure fans and views of: they didn’t care much for their early manager Perri ‘Pebbles’ Reid, the L.A. Reid wife and collaborator who wanted to put heels and skirts on TLC from its jump off. The girls’ resistance to it is a pivotal moment that turned TLC from a talented group to an iconic one.
“Girls in this business are chewed up and tossed out,” Pebbles says in The TLC Story. “So you got to be respected and flawless.”
And they were! Until her shame-y part about “loose girls,” she seems like a tough-but-fair mentor. But she becomes more and more controlling, even exploitative, over the group. H
And then there’s the bleakness of the Left Eye saga. All the dramatized footage of Left Eye’s spiritual retreat among the clear waters of Honduras should feel pensive and peaceful, as the rapper finds an elusive spiritual peace. But any viewer who knows anything about TLC knows that her untimely death looms over these scenes like a darkness. In these final moments, Lil’ Mama’s performance is stark and vulnerable, understated and sweet.
As much as Left Eye was known as a charismatic rapper, The TLC Story also portrays her as a visionary too (“crazy creative,” T-Boz says). Lopes envisions Fanmail’s sci-fi aesthetic over 10 years before it finally came to pass. It’s well-placed precedent for Left Eye’s creative restlessness with the group.
As much as this was a recounting of TLC’s career, the movie was at its heart a memorial for Left Eye. To this day, her absence leaves a hole in the middle of TLC that will never be totally filled. But ten years after Left Eye’s tragic death, when the actresses playing T-Boz and Chilli dissolve into the actual, modern-day T-Boz and Chilli, that’s what the remaining members are trying to do: fill that hole. And make more tunes for their fans. And, to quote TLC’s R&B contemporary Mary J. Blige, no more drama.
With the response to The TLC Story, there seems to be a lot of fans out there still, waiting for new music. Here’s hoping this look back into the past makes way for more TLC music in the future.