Film & Television

‘Tina’: Thank You and Farewell

In real life, as well as in books and movies, we like our heroes to experience trauma, the more grueling the better, come through it, and succeed in spite of it. We’re horrified by their pain, then moved and motivated by their story of survival and redemption. If they can overcome such terrible odds, rebuild, and then soar, what can’t we achieve?

But being inspired by a story isn’t the same as living it. 

Tina Turner, now 81, retired and plagued with ill health, has tried to put at least part of her story to rest for 40 years. But to no avail. Despite countless awards, chart-topping hits, quintuple platinum albums, and the world record for largest audience for a solo performer, Turner is asked the same questions over and over. 

She cannot escape the shadow of Ike and the years he abused her.

In Tina, the new documentary by Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin, Turner speaks from her magnificent home in Switzerland. She’s reflective and surprisingly compassionate. But, she’s also candid. “I had an abusive life,” she shrugs. “There’s no other way to tell the story. That’s the truth. You have to accept it.”

Tina, which is divided into five chapters and runs for two hours, combines backstage and studio footage, riveting live performances, and interviews with a variety of people who knew or worked with Turner throughout her six-decade career. But, the moments that feel most compelling are the brief one-on-ones the directors conduct with the star herself.

As anyone familiar with her vast catalog knows, Turner was born in Nutbush, Tennessee, a community some 50 miles outside of Nashville. Her parents were sharecroppers, and she and her siblings joined them picking cotton. Their home was a violent one until the day both her mother and father left, and didn’t come back. 

As a high school student in St. Louis, Anna Mae Bullock (her birth name; “Tina” was coined by Ike Turner as a stage name, without any input from Anna Mae) went with her sister to hear Ike perform. For weeks she begged him to let her sing, and when he finally did, she was taken under his wing and incorporated into the act. In Tina, multiple people, including Turner, remember Ike as a mentor and “big brother” to her. Soon, however, he saw her growing success (and the attention of music industry insiders like Phil Spector) as a threat; others had left him and he became paranoid that she would too. They married and despite an escalating pattern of abuse (the first time he beat her, she was pregnant), Tina stayed. “I promised I wouldn’t leave him,” she explains a half-century later, “And in those days, a promise was a promise.”

When she eventually did leave, Ike kept all the royalties; Turner petitioned only to keep her name and, in a turn of events almost unbearably unfair, was soon faced with lawsuits from the venues and gigs that were canceled when the pair broke up. She had to make money and took on everything from residencies in Vegas (which were not the lucrative extravaganzas they are today) to appearances on an Olivia Newton-John special, the Brady Bunch variety show, and Hollywood Squares. “Where’s Ike?” joked host Peter Marshall. It was a question she would field in one shape or another for decades.

In 1981, she did an interview with People magazine’s music editor Carl Arrington, hoping that she could put the past behind her. She described her years with Ike as “living a life of death,” and accused him of “torture.” She would later write a best-selling memoir I, Tina, with MTV’s Kurt Loder, expanding on her story and naively hoping that the public would let her move past it. What followed was the critically acclaimed movie adaptation What’s Love Got to Do With It, which earned Angela Bassett an Oscar nomination. Turner admits that she’s never seen it.

Even as she tried to evade questions about her past, Turner set her sights on an ambitious future. The industry wasn’t sure what to do with her; at 44, she was well past her rock and roll expiration date. As she and manager Roger Davies worked on the concept for an album, there was an executive change at Capitol Records, and she came perilously close to being let go (the new head of the company actually berated and threatened a producer for having signed her, freely referring to her with a racial epithet). Salvation came in the form of songwriter Terry Britten — “He looked like a leprechaun,” Turner remembers fondly — and his song “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” Turner’s version, radically different from the original recording by English pop group Bucks Fizz, went to number one on the Billboard chart, and earned Turner three Grammy Awards: Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. “Better Be Good to Me,” from the same album, Private Dancer, gave Turner a fourth Grammy that year for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance.

Turner was suddenly enjoying the stardom that had eluded her for the first half of her life. She sold out arenas around the world, wrote her New York Times bestselling autobiography, and costarred with Mel Gibson in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. And even as she was haunted by memories of her troubled past (a combination of PTSD and relentless reporters), she became an inspiration for victims of abuse and sexual violence. When she appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s show in 1996, Oprah told her, “We have 50,000 letters downstairs from women who have also been through it and survived.” The following year, Larry King asked her, “Do you realize that you are a feminist hero in America?” Her response: “I’m beginning to.” 

In Tina, she regrets that so much attention has centered on what she refers to as the “ridiculously embarrassing story of my life.” She’s quite specific: “It wasn’t a good life. Well, some parts were. But the good didn’t balance out the bad.”

In recent years, Turner (who practices Buddhism, which she credits for helping her find courage and peace) has found the love she missed earlier in her life. She met Erwin Bach, sixteen years her junior, a German music producer (and one of Tinas executive producers), and remembers feeling an immediate connection. She’s giddy as she describes it: “He was younger. He was 30 years old at the time and had the prettiest face. I mean, you cannot … It was like insane. ‘Where did he come from?’ He was really so good-looking. My heart … and it means that a soul has met, and my hands were shaking.” The couple finally married in 2013. 

Tina doesn’t delve into Turner’s recent health challenges (including cancer, a stroke, and a kidney transplant; Bach was her donor) or other personal tragedies she’s suffered. Instead, it attempts to serve as the final word, at long last, on her nightmare first marriage. Like the star, we’re happy to close that chapter and focus instead on her resilience, hard work, tremendous talent, and meteoric rise. “It wasn’t a comeback,” she insists referring to her ascent in the 1980s. “Tina had never arrived.”

With excerpts from exhilarating performances that span her career, Tina gifts the viewer with a front-row seat to experience a live performer like no other. Commentary by Arrington, Bassett, Davies, Bach, Winfrey, Loder, backup singer Lejeune Richardson, and Turner’s assistant and friend Rhonda Graam is thoughtful and respectful and affectionate. In fact, Turner, a woman who for many years despaired of finding love, seems to have been surrounded by it, not only from those who knew and worked with her but from thousands upon thousands of fans around the world. 

“How do you bow out slowly?” Turner asks towards the end of Tina. How do you “Just go away?”

More than anything else, this entirely loving portrait of one of the music world’s enduring icons seems to be her way of saying “Thank you.” 

And, more importantly, “Farewell.”

Tina is available on HBO and HBO MAX.

 

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