Tina Turner's career is the stuff of legend. She started wowing audiences when she was still a teenager, escaped an abusive marriage and reinvented herself as a stadium-filling rock star when she was well into her 40s. All the while, she was cementing her reputation as one of the most high-energy performers to ever take the stage, a heedless and magnetic entertainer who would never allow you to take your eyes off of her.
The new HBO documentary Tina is a monument to the soul music legend, and it looks back at her storied life with fresh eyes. Along with a wealth of archival interviews and sensational concert footage, Turner, 81, weighs in on her own past from her home in Switzerland, where she has retired with her second husband. The film, directed by Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin, considers not only her biggest hits but her conversion to Buddhism, the racism and sexism she experienced as a Black woman in a White male-dominated field, and the emotional neglect she endured from her parents.
Born Anna Mae Bullock in west Tennessee, she didn't become the Tina Turner we know until she moved to St. Louis in the late '50s and met Ike Turner, a guitarist and bandleader who instantly recognized the grit and temerity of young Bullock's voice. Turner changed her stage name without telling her (he reportedly intended the alias to be applicable to whatever vocalist might replace Anna Mae later on) and took her on the road with his blues revue, and their mentor-student relationship became romantic. They got married in Tijuana after Tina got pregnant, and before Ike had legally separated from his previous wife.
It's now well known that Ike was domineering and abusive, leaving Tina alone for long stretches to care for their kids (including some from one of his many previous marriages) while he descended further into cocaine addiction.
"Everyone was always happy around my mother," Tina's son Craig says in the film, "but she was always sad."
Of course, Ike Turner is the imposing figure that casts a long shadow over Tina's life, and it's nearly impossible to talk about her past without mentioning him. Even after they'd separated, she was still stigmatized as one half of a double act, as an incomplete performer. The documentary includes old interviews and TV appearances in which Tina is asked, "Where's Ike?" and has to laugh it off. Those journalists probably didn't realize how truly hurtful those questions were, because most of them were unaware that Ike abused and tormented her for years.
Their violent relationship was previously chronicled in the 1993 drama What's Love Got to Do with It, with Oscar-nominated performances by Angela Bassett as Tina and Laurence Fishburne as Ike. Adapted from I, Tina, a bestselling memoir that Turner wrote with Kurt Loder, that film begins right before Tina meets Ike and ends shortly before her '80s superstardom, and focuses mostly on the low points of the performer's life.
The prescribed narrative of Tina Turner has long been seen as one of overcoming adversity, and she certainly has cleared hurdles that nobody should have to. The issue with said narrative is that it defines Turner by the abuse she survived, rather than the talent that sustained her. There's so much more to her story, artistry and influence that gets plenty of screen time in Tina, particularly the anecdote about how she and producer Terry Britten took a forgettable, plastic demo called "What's Love Got to Do with It" and made it into the No. 1 smash that would turn her career around.
The power of the music is what elbows its way to the front of the stage in this telling of the Tina Turner story: the commanding attitude of "A Fool in Love," the barreling momentum of "Proud Mary," the gargantuan sonics of "River Deep — Mountain High," the sultry pop attitude of the Private Dancer album.
What's Love Got to Do with It is a film about abuse, and it's a powerful one. But Tina is a film about artistic and personal triumph, and that's how it should be. Turner has described this documentary and a recent Broadway musical biography as her farewell to her fans, a way to end her career on an upbeat note. In that sense, it's good to see Turner take control of her own story again. ♦
Tina premieres Sat, March 27, on HBO. What's Love Got to Do with It is available to rent via Amazon, Google Play and YouTube.