This review originally ran on March 24th, 2021. Since the documentary is a great way to celebrate the life and music of Tina Turner, who died today at 83, we’re republishing it.
The story of Tina Turner has been told before. It was partially shared in a People magazine interview back in 1981, the first time the singer publicly described the abuse she endured during her 16-year marriage to musical partner Ike Turner. It was laid out in more detail in the autobiography I, Tina, co-written with Kurt Loder, and then again in the 1993 movie based on that autobiography, What’s Love Got to Do With It.
But Tina Turner has not told her story the way it is told in Tina, the HBO documentary debuting March 27. Positioning itself as a definitive account of the life and career of this rock-and-roll pioneer, the documentary enables Turner, now 81, to discuss the full breadth of her existence in her own words, while speaking directly to camera. Tina is sweeping, fascinating, and, because of Turner’s participation, deeply personal. It also frames itself as the final word on this music legend, strongly implying in its closing moments, including a montage of Turner taking bows during performances throughout the years, that this two-hour movie is essentially Turner’s farewell to the wider world.
“How do you bow out slowly, just go away?” Turner asks rhetorically in Tina. Apparently the answer is like this: with a beautiful, moving film that feels like a summation of who Tina Turner is, yet also still leaves viewers wanting just a little bit more. Perhaps that’s appropriate. A great artist is always supposed to exit the stage with the audience craving more encores. (Given that Turner was recently nominated to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for the first time as a solo artist, it seems fair to say that she’s not going to disappear from the landscape just yet.)
As directed by Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin, who won the best documentary feature Oscar in 2012 for their film Undefeated, Tina focuses its first 50 minutes or so on Turner’s partnership with Ike Turner, which began as something akin to a mentor-mentee dynamic, then turned romantic, and, after that, into something much darker. What she endured in that relationship for many years — the violence in the form of third-degree burns and black eyes, the minimizing of her personhood, the shame that drove her to gulp down an entire bottle of sleeping pills — is described in detail. When Turner recalls the aftermath of her suicide attempt and the fact that her pulse returned when Ike started talking to her in the hospital, her words are cast against imagery of her performing in the 1970s, with an infectious grin on her face and tiny bubbles floating around her. That single pairing of sound and visual captures the contradiction of her entire early career. Lindsay and Martin do a marvelous job of weaving in archival footage like this in ways that are illuminating and not conventional by music documentary standards.
Even after Tina fled that marriage — literally sneaking out of a Dallas hotel and running through oncoming freeway traffic to get away from him — the specter of Ike still lingered. She first tried to exorcise him by doing a 1981 interview with Carl Arrington, the then-music editor at People, in which she finally explained the true nature of their marriage. This was long before #MeToo. For Turner, it was more like #JustMe. Domestic abuse was not discussed openly in that era. To speak as frankly as she did was a risk. Turner says she was so nervous about it that she consulted her psychic to find out if the move would obliterate her career. “She said, ‘No, Tina,’” Turner recalls. “’It’s going to do just the opposite. It’s going to break everything wide open.’”
What that psychic didn’t tell her was that, despite the massive success she would achieve with the solo album Private Dancer and others that followed, the specter of Ike would continue to loom. She would be asked about her ex-husband constantly in interviews during the 1980s — Tina features a clip of a reporter inquiring about her thoughts on Ike’s recent cocaine arrest while she’s doing press for the movie Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. She says she agreed to publish I, Tina to “get the journalists off my back.” It didn’t work. The book beget the movie starring Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne, and still more conversation about the most traumatic moments in her life. Even though her resilience inspired so many, for her, every revisitation of that era forced her to jab at open wounds.
The unfortunate fact is that part of what makes Tina Turner so remarkable is that she got away from Ike and had the guts to tell her story at a time when such truths were not being told. But Tina also understands that an even bigger part of what makes Tina Turner so remarkable is the fact that she’s Tina fucking Turner. The film drives that point home via interviews with people who know and admire her, including backup singers, longtime manager Roger Davies, Oprah Winfrey, and Bassett, as well as plenty of footage of the woman originally known as Anna Mae Bullock onstage, in the 1960s and later. There truly aren’t words for the amount of energy and sensuality she brought to every performance. On the Phil Specter–produced “River Deep Mountain High,” her voice can blow the glass out of all your car windows and the windows of every vehicle in a 30-mile radius. When she struts on stage in the late 1980s, singing “What’s Love Got to Do With It” in front of a crowd that seems to stretch toward infinity, she is pure joy on a pair of legs so powerful they could seemingly stop traffic and, quite possibly, time itself.
The pain and the pride of being Tina Turner are forever intertwined, though some of the sources of her pain are not addressed. The fact that she lost one of her sons, Craig, to suicide in 2018 is not mentioned, although there is a dedication to him at the end of the movie. Her recent health troubles — including a 2017 kidney transplant she underwent thanks to an organ donation from her husband, Erwin Bach — are not mentioned either.
The ways in which tragedy and triumph have defined her do come through loud and clear, particularly via audio of Turner talking to Loder in 1985 about the lack of love in her life, starting from childhood when both of her parents abandoned her. “Kurt, I’ve been through” — at this point she smacks a table — “fucking tons of heartbreak. I’ve analyzed it. I’ve said, What’s wrong with me? I’ve looked in the mirror with myself stripped of makeup and without hair. Oh, can someone see the beauty in the woman … that I am?”
Photos of Turner without makeup and sans her famous wild blond mane appear onscreen as she talks. Looking at her face and dark, short hair completely natural, a way that we’ve rarely seen her, one can only hope that by now Tina Turner finally knows that she is loved, and that the woman she is and always has been has everything to do with that.