It’s not often we get to feel good for celebrities. But if there’s any celebrity who’s been able to garner an immense amount of public goodwill it’s Tina Turner and it’s not hard to see why. Turner is someone who has continuously beat the odds throughout her long and varied career. She came from a poor sharecropper family in the South to become one of the biggest entertainers of all time starting out in the ‘60s with her husband Ike first becoming known as a fiery live act before leaving Ike after from what we know now was constant abuse from him. Then after years of struggling, Turner found success again in the ‘80s as a solo artist becoming even bigger than she ever was with Ike seamlessly adapting to the coked-out dance-pop of the era competing with the big superstars of that decade like Michael Jackson and Prince and Madonna and Bruce Springsteen and Phil Collins. Turner was now a global star regularly packing stadiums in her 40s and was even a pop chart presence til she was 53. How many artists have that kind of career longevity?
In 2021, Tina Turner is 81 and long retired from music living a well-deserved retirement in Switzerland where she is now an official citizen. But despite that, we still can’t get enough of Tina and her story. Turner and music journalist Kurt Loder released the autobiography I, Tina in 1986 which was adapted into the 1993 Oscar-nominated biopic What’s Love Got To Do With It. A few years ago, her story was turned into the musical Tina which had been playing on Broadway before the pandemic shuttered theaters and will presumably still be playing once they finally reopen. Now, we have ourselves a full-scale HBO documentary also titled Tina that the legend herself is hoping to be one last moment to tell her story.
Much like another of HBO’s recent music documentary, The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend A Broken Heart, Tina aims to retell the story of a legendary artist that we think we’re all familiar with but in a nuanced way to make us better understand the true story. Directors Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin, a team who’ve made two highly rated documentaries in the past decade Undefeated and LA92, manage to pull it off with Tina. As with the Bee Gees documentary, the filmmakers are given lots of resources having access to a bunch of Turner footage going back to the ‘60s along with interviews from people including Turner herself as well as with many of her closest friends and collaborators including Loder, Oprah Winfrey, and actress Angela Basset who played Turner in the biopic among many others.
Tina plays out as a greatest hits slideshow showing the many big points of Tina Turner’s career from her beginnings with Ike in St. Louis to their initial fame in the ‘60s and ‘70s to their infamous divorce leading Tina to go out on her own at first being relegated to performing in casinos, cabarets, and appearing on TV variety and game shows. Then, we see Roger Davies talking about wanting to manage Tina in her solo career realizing her true potential as a performer despite the initial rejection of record labels dismissing Tina as old news and that audiences wouldn’t be interested in her as a solo artist. Eventually, Capitol Records expresses interest and together Turner and Davies pull off a remarkable comeback culminating with 1984’s multi-platinum Private Dancer giving Turner her biggest American hit and only #1 “What’s Love Got To Do With It” leading to a string of hits, awards, major tours, and other opportunities like her role in Mad Max: Thunderdome where she also sang the hit theme “We Don’t Need Another Hero (Thunderdome).”
Aside from her musical career, Tina also focuses on the other big part of Turner’s life, her tumultuous relationship with Ike, a story that as we see keeps coming up again and again after she first discussed it with People Magazine in 1981 with audiotapes of the interview playing throughout. Turner shares the memory of someone who was always paranoid about attention going back to not being credited for being the lead artist on his band’s “Rocket 88” a 1951 single widely cited as one of the original rock and roll records. It was Ike who created Tina Turner’s name and created a whole band operation that he controlled and exploited after they took off nationally even if people were seeing them for Tina.
Ike got so controlling and abusive that Tina’s first taste of creative and personal freedom was through Phil Spector of all people who wanted her voice on his grand creation “River Deep-Mountain High” going as far as to pay Ike to not come to the studio. The film gets into disturbing details about the constant abuse Tina suffered from Ike that’ll make people, even those who know the story, stunned. Tina makes it clear that her years with Ike were not the best of times even despite first getting famous with him to the point whereby the time she escaped from him and kept her stage name in the divorce settlement she just wanted to be free despite the many people who continued to bring up the relationship.
What I ultimately liked about watching Tina was the filmmakers’ respect and appreciation for its subject. Where much of Tina Turner’s life story has been dominated by her life with Ike, Tina addresses it while not letting it be the overwhelming theme. Ultimately, Tina is meant to showcase what made people fall in love with Tina Turner in the first place which was that she was a dynamic performer and singer. The film begins and ends with footage of Turner performing to adoring crowds at her peak and watching it you can understand why people paid money to watch her in concert. She just completely owns the stage.
One part of the documentary I have an issue with is when it talks about the barriers Turner faced in wanting to be, in her words, the first Black female rock and roll superstar who could sell out stadiums like the Rolling Stones. There are moments that touch on these barriers such as Ike stating that the reason “River Deep-Mountain High” failed in America was because it didn’t fit into both white and Black radio formats. When Tina is attempting her comeback, the industry sees her more as R&B than the rock music she saw herself in. When Capitol Records changed leadership in the early ‘80s, the label was almost going to cut Turner before relenting but did so promising not to promote her material.
All this industry racism is compelling but we don’t get much further insight than what’s told on the surface. The documentary would have been made more interesting had it allowed for Turner and her people to touch on the barriers she faced especially coming to fame in an era of Jim Crow segregation and when rock music began to outgrow its Black roots segregating itself as a majority white genre. We don’t usually think of Tina Turner as an artist breaking racial and gender barriers but it’s obvious just how much of a groundbreaking figure she has been within the rock and pop music worlds with her nomination as a solo act for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year a prime example of how overdue this recognition is.
Before the ending performance, Tina fast-forwards to Turner’s current life in retirement with her new husband showing up in Manhattan for the premiere of the Tina musical to screaming fans still devoted to her a decade after she stopped performing. Turner hopes that the documentary and the Tina musical will serve as her proper farewell indicating that she won’t be making any more public appearances. I haven’t seen the Tina musical but from watching the Tina documentary, it seems that Tina Turner is going out exactly the way she wants to and after the many ups and downs she’s gone through I certainly can’t think of a better way.
Tina is currently available to stream on HBO Max