Tina Turner’s story is one of promise: Promises kept and broken, promise stifled then fulfilled. A vow of loyalty to her abusive ex-husband Ike suppressed her own potential. She might not be a comeback story, but she’s certainly a story of escape, growth and self-actualization in the face of personal and industrial adversity. The singer’s status in musical history is unimpeachable, but those recounting her story tend to drift towards its most lurid tabloid tellings. Tina directors Dan Lindsay and TJ Martin attempt to subvert this legacy of salacious headlines by examining it from the inside out. The documentary doesn’t fully escape the exploitative feeling of the talk show circuit it critiques, but putting it in context with new interviews and archival material of Turner explains what it’s all got to do, got to do with it.
Tina tracks the 81-year-old star from her musical start, linked with a relationship, to her current place in life, linked with love. Ironically for a film so adamant about separating Anna Mae Bullock’s story from that of Ike Turner—something that journalists failed to do up until the latter’s death in 2007—the first half is completely tied up with their shared Revue. While it feels a bit hypocritical at first, simply because Lindsay and Martin order their material so that Turner doesn’t explain how she feels defined by her abusive relationship until you’ve already begun the history lesson, you begin to understand that this delve into a shared past is a necessary evil—a painful process that sticks around for us so we can understand how it’s still stuck on her. In order to truly define and understand Tina, Ike and his traumatic influence must be isolated and examined.
And we do understand. Performances of soaring freedom, where Turner struts and shakes on stage like the rock god she truly is, convert new disciples with every long-legged kick and howl. Martin, Lindsay and editors Taryn Gould and Carter Gunn crosscut live performances over tracks with an energy that isn’t random or erratic, but with the same glowing confidence of their subject. Her voice may be a raw force of nature, but her performances are all skill and professionalism. Together, combined across stages and eras to find the biggest and best movements to emphasize the songs, her magnetism is inescapable. Just when we’ve comfortably settled into a concert doc’s rhythms, hypnotized by her charisma and ability, bang—we’re back on her past. It took her the whole first half of the film to leave and now what she’s left is dragged back out for her. It’s a sharp mimic of Tina’s career. Even soaring as the biggest pop star in the world, people focused on the scars.
Aural collages highlighting the hack questions of callous interviewers—a great fear for anyone in my shoes that has an ounce of self-awareness or compassion—form a crushing chorus of their own. How is Ike? Ike is up to such-and-such, how does that make you feel? The pain and repetition, the terrible media call that always asks the same questions, helps explain why there’s been a total eradication of celebrity responses apart from curated anecdotes and canned answers. It’s half marketing, half defense mechanism. But when you finally get past the “edited and condensed for space,” through the stories that’ve been tightly timed for commercials, you hear the real person underneath.
“I have been through fucking tons of heartbreak. I have analyzed it,” Turner says in one archival recording. “I’ve said, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ I’ve looked in the mirror at myself, stripped of makeup and without hair. Why can’t someone see the beauty in the woman that is who I am? Not a goddamn person has found it.” Hearing the raw recordings, from the tapes of journalists writing books or profiles about her, you get vulnerability and charisma that won’t fill you with pity—it’ll make you want to buy her a drink and get to know her like so few have.
These moments of personal intensity are supported by Tina’s remarkable specificity in its wide use of archival materials to suit its interviews and its intimate, restored footage of early concerts, rehearsals and children’s snow days. That aforementioned recording leads straight into a full, incredible rendition of “Help.” Showing some of the same virtuosity they did in LA 92, which was entirely archival footage, Lindsay and Martin bolster emotional insight with evocative images: Details of Ike’s cruelty, violence and pettiness pour out while we stare at his jealous glare. The joy in Turner’s face once she’s flourishing on her own—seen best in behind-the-scenes photos with her early, gi-clad backing band—hits so much harder after confronting the smiling façade of her early days. This access leads to some engaging audiovisual parallels: We tour through the present-day rot of Ike and Tina’s old L.A. home; we hear the shared power of Tina’s cherished Buddhist chants and her on-stage call-and-response.
These moments are worth far more than the film’s A-list talking heads (Oprah and biopic What’s Love Got to Do with It star Angela Bassett pop in every once in a while), making the film’s two hours fly by. Its narrative is necessarily a brutal one that complicates your standard “overcoming adversity” tale by both implicating the media/marketing world for exploiting her pain and emphasizing that even in that exploitation, there was some good—her intense visibility leading others suffering similar abuse to say “If Tina can do it, so can I.” That interrogation harmonizes with other criticisms (like how Turner had to become a musical expatriate because the U.S. and its music industry was simply too racist for her) and humor (a sly retelling of how “What’s Love Got To Do With It” could’ve crashed and burned with its original singers; Turner’s incredibly horny meet-cute with her current husband) to find catharsis. It’s Turner’s story how she’d like it told, and it has the scope and focus of a definitive text.
Despite its pain, Tina is a feel-good epic, an escape from the systemic internal and external forces that conspired to corrupt and consume one of the most influential individuals of a generation. Its association and inherent need to power through a lifelong link with Tina’s abusive ex-partner can sometimes feel a bit hypocritical, even knowing that by doing so, Tina offers more freedom than pain. It has, in some ways, the same purpose as What’s Love Got to Do with It. It is educational, leading to equanimity. Where What’s Love Got to Do with It was a midlife coming-of-age—a “Hello, here’s my story”—Tina is a redefining, empowering farewell that adds perspective as she tips her hat and has her happily ever after out of the limelight.
Directors: Dan Lindsay, TJ Martin
Release Date: March 27, 2021 (HBO)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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