Throughout her public life, Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes was considered the "crazy" member of TLC, thanks to highly publicized antics fueling that perception: like the time she torched her on-again/off-again boyfriend and NFL Pro-Bowler Andre Rison's Atlanta mansion in 1994; or the time she publicly challenged both of her TLC group mates, Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins and Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas, to solo-album duels; or the time she aligned herself with questionable Death Row Records' owner Suge Knight by signing to his label and changing her stage name to N.I.N.A. a year before her death. Public perception and reality aren't always the same, however, and that's what drives the documentary that kicks off the Atlanta Film Festival Thursday, April 19, and airs on VH1 starting May 19, titled The Last Days of Left Eye.
But enigmas don't die; they multiply. And when the character in question is a celebrity racked with contradiction such as Lisa Lopes, a tragic ending in life often signifies the birth of a legend. Like her musical peer and friend, Tupac Shakur, Lopes' mystique has spawned an afterlife of its own since her death in April 2002. Unlike Shakur, however, there's been no unfinished body of Lopes' work rehashed to fan her flickering flame – until now. The project is cobbled together from footage left behind by Left Eye, who was actually filming a documentary about her life while in Honduras during the month leading up to the car accident that claimed the star's life. As a result, Last Days soars as an intimate portrait, but still falls short of capturing Lopes in all her paradoxical glory.
Left Eye narrates the film the same way Tupac narrated his posthumous, Oscar-nominated documentary, Tupac: Resurrection, which was directed by the same filmmaker, Lauren Lazin. The result is more than meets the eye. Yet what you won't see or hear in Last Days are the stories from those who knew her better than the cameras, the limelight or the media could perceive – perhaps even better than she knew herself.
"The thing about Lisa that most people didn't know [was] that Lisa had a heart of gold," says Sheri Huguely Riley, who was the product manager for the group's best-selling album, CrazySexyCool, at LaFace/Arista, before starting her own entertainment marketing company, GLUE. "She was one of the most caring people."
It still angers Lopes' last personal assistant, Stephanie Patterson Dayton, when she thinks about how many people took advantage of that generosity. When Lopes was truly broke and didn't know how she would take care of her staff or herself, Dayton "actually got her to sit down to [write] the list [of people she'd loaned money to]. And she was owed millions," Dayton says. "None of those people ever even followed up with her ... it was just assumed that it was given. People used her like that all the time."
Still, Lopes' life brimmed with contradictions. At the center was her troubled relationship with her disciplinarian father – a frequent drinker who would assault her mother, Wanda Lopes, in Lisa's presence. Some have suggested that Lisa's unhealthy relationship with her father colored her troubled relationship with Rison, whom Lopes admitted physically and mentally abused her at times.
Last Days drives this point home, while also revealing how Lopes was striving to come to terms with her past. Perhaps her desire to cleanse herself of a physically and emotionally toxic past manifested itself in her zealous loyalty to the controversial Honduran-born herbalist Dr. Sebi. Under his tutelage, she began retreating to Honduras and adopting a healthier lifestyle that included raw foods, herbs and rigorous exercise. At the time of her death, she'd taken a large group of people, including her girl group Egypt, to Honduras for a spiritual retreat.
Just as she was working to heal herself and others, there are many still eager to cleanse the world of the negative images of Lopes.
"She was a genius," says Riley, who was helping Lopes pitch a healthy-cooking show aimed at kids at the time of her death. According to Dayton, Lopes came up with many of TLC's most innovative concepts, including the interactive aspects of the Fanmail album and marketing campaign. Atlanta music pioneer Jermaine Dupri, who says Lopes was like his sister, testifies that "she was supercreative, and she was always coming up with ideas for anybody. Like she came up with stuff for [rap group] Kris Kross that I used. She came up with a lot of different ideas for a lot of different people. She was just a supercreative person."
Lopes' brother, Ronald, executive director of the Lisa Lopes Foundation, reflects on the creativity Lisa displayed when caring for him and their younger sister Raina (aka Reigndrop). "While my mom was gone to work," Ronald recalls, "she would actually write little plays for us to do. So when my mom came home, we would act out the play. She would take a cereal box. She would cut the front out, create a little stage and ... take some socks and draw some pictures on them and we'd put our hands through the cereal boxes and we'd have little puppets talking to each other."
Terry Brantley credits Lopes' support in the successful launch of his Stone Mountain club, the Atrium, a decade ago. He also believes the circumstances surrounding Lopes' death illustrate her evolution. "It was in her efforts to actually do very positive things in Honduras and help the kids and build a children's center that she died," he emphasizes. "She wasn't hanging out in the streets of New York drinking and partying or doing anything crazy, she was literally down there finding and creating a peace of mind that I think is to be respected because she was actually making that turn from being a pop star to being a responsible pop artist."
Just as she captivated fans for a decade but perished before realizing her full potential as an artist, Last Days is both compelling and incomplete. But what better way to give birth to a legend than to end with a question?
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