Singer Tina Turner has spent a great deal of her life running away from things that made her feel like anything less than the powerhouse performer that she always has been. And one of the great lessons of the new documentary about her life and career, Tina, from Oscar-winning directors Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin (Undefeated), is that the more she ran away from the memories her psychologically cruel mother and her cruel-in-every-possible-way ex-husband, the more they kept popping up in her life.
Turner gave a tell-all interview to People magazine in 1981, hoping to put to rest the questions about why she left husband and musical partner Ike Turner. A few years later, she wrote a book about her life, I, Tina (with music journalist Kurt Loder) for the express purpose of putting it all out there so that journalists would stop asking her about how bad the abuse got while she was married. But these things only seemed to give reporters added license to ask more and more deeply personal questions. She had hoped the biopic What’s Love Got to Do with It? would end the public’s newfound fascination with her life story, but it only made them hungry for even more. And a recent stage musical of her story seemed to have the same impact. So in a way, this deeply moving documentary feels like a farewell to all of it: the painful past, her loyal fanbase, and prying journalists who want just a little bit more of a peek behind the curtain of her years-long retirement.
Tina maps her discovery by Ike, their early romantic years (which she insists were the only good time they had), her rise as a world-class, electric performer, the rough years after she left Ike, and the restoration of her career to unprecedented levels in the 1980s. Using an absolute wealth of archival footage, unseen home movies, photos, interviews with her closest friends and co-workers, and a new interview with Turner from her home in Zurich, Switzerland, the film paints a mostly complete portrait of a woman who is both finally, deeply happy and also over the things in her life that almost destroyed her. She talks about these difficult moments (in what feels like the last time ever) but she laughs them off as something that is done influencing her present-day life.
The wisest thing the documentary does is allow the music to do the lion’s share of the talking. Once Turner opens her mouth and lets that roar of a voice loose, the reasons she persevered become clear. From her hits with Ike (“A Fool for Love,” “Proud Mary”) to her should-have-been, Phil Spector-produced record “River Deep—Mountain High,” through to the creation of the Private Dancer album and a string of Las Vegas appearances in between, the journey through her music sets this film apart from most music docs. There are times when the stories of suffering and torture are so overwhelming, it’s almost impossible to hear any more. And then the film cuts to a live performance, with Tina spinning and gyrating, the sweaty and perfect rock queen, often delivering a much-improved interpretation of someone else’s music (a slowed-down, soulful version of The Beatles’ “Help” is particularly poignant).
Other choices made by the filmmakers seem curious, and their omissions would almost justify the film being an hour longer. Entire, very popular albums and songs are never even mentioned. Her groundbreaking acting role in George Miller’s Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome is briefly touched upon, but you could honestly make an entire movie just about her impact in popular culture because of that performance. Her role as the Acid Queen in the film version of Tommy; her LiveAid performance with Mick Jagger; or her participation in the “We Are the World” record: not here. Even her decision to slip quietly into retirement isn’t really delved into in a satisfactory way. These are curiosities more than dealbreakers, but it’s clear that it’s possible for someone to have too much story to fit into one two-hour movie.
Turner never seems entirely comfortable with the “survivor” label, but the way in which she not only survived but thrived and reached such heights has got to impress even her. The testimonies from the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Angela Bassett, Loder, manager Roger Davies, playwright Katori Hall, who wrote Tina—The Tina Turner Musical, and, of course, husband and former record executive Erwin Bach do a lot of the bragging for Turner that she can’t always bring herself to do. By the time her story is done being told in Tina, I half expected her to say with her patented laugh “Now get the hell out of my house.” And she has certainly earned the right to do so. The doc is essentially a final chapter, at least for its subject, and it seems a proper and fitting way to tell this woman’s story, which is both utterly unique and all too familiar.
The film debuts Saturday, March 27, on HBO and will then be available to stream on HBO Max.
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