Music

HBO’s Revelatory New Tina Turner Doc Is a Must-Watch

No matter how much you think you know about Tina Turner.

A woman in knee-high black heeled boots  sings and dances on stage. She is wearing a gold, sparkly leotard; behind her is a gold drum set. A man, his back to the camera, plays guitar to her left. Three woman are to her right, singing backup; to their right is a man at a keyboard playing alongside them.
Courtesy of Rhonda Graam/HBO

Despite having spent much of her life as one of the most beloved performers on earth, Tina Turner’s relationship to her public has often felt oddly obstructed. This is no fault of Tina’s own—she’s written two memoirs and an autobiographical self-help book, has been the subject of an acclaimed Hollywood movie and a hit Broadway musical, and remains one of the world’s most compelling interview subjects. But for a long time, our pop-cultural shorthand tended to sketch her legend as partially someone else’s. In the early years of her stardom, she was not just Tina, but one half of “Ike and Tina,” the First Couple of R&B; when she built her extraordinary solo career during the 1980s, after leaving Ike and opening up about the monstrous abuse that she’d endured throughout at his hands, she was celebrated as a superhero of courageous resilience. But even this personal success had the effect of defining her partly in terms of that marriage and creative partnership. Later, the 1993 biopic What’s Love Got to Do with It was sufficiently Ike-centric to garner Laurence Fishburne an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role. (At least Angela Bassett, who played Tina, was also nominated for Best Actress.)

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This historical unevenness feels as if it has finally been corrected, however, thanks to Dan Lindsay and TJ Martin’s exceptional new film Tina. Currently streaming on HBO Max after a Saturday premiere on HBO, it’s one of the best music documentaries I’ve seen in recent years, a movie whose openheartedness, honesty and warmth repeatedly took my breath away. Tina doesn’t break much ground from a formal perspective: It proceeds roughly chronologically and boasts a standard mix of archival footage and talking-head interviews, including with Tina herself. But the film has an uncommon assuredness and eloquence, a keen sense of what makes its subject fascinating, and a grasp of shape and tone that, by Tina’s end, feels almost poetic. The sum result is a quietly revelatory work that achieves remarkable insight and intimacy while never feeling sensationalistic.

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Tina Turner’s life story is entirely incredible, just one reason that we’ve yet to tire of hearing it. On the surface, her rise to stardom seemed like something out of a storybook: fantastical on the outside, while just beneath the surface lay the stuff of nightmares. She was born Anna Mae Bullock in 1939 and spent her earliest years in the unforgettably-named sharecropping community of Nutbush, Tennessee. It was a poor and peripatetic childhood, as she frequently bouncing around between relatives’ homes before relocating to St. Louis at age 16. It was there in 1957 that Anna Mae met Izea Luster Turner, who was eight years her senior and the leader of Ike Turner and His Kings of Rhythm, the hottest band in St. Louis. Ike was only six years removed from writing and playing piano on “Rocket 88,” a 1951 Number One R&B hit recorded by the Kings of Rhythm but credited to “Jackie Brenton and His Delta Cats” that arguably invented the style that, by the time Ike met Anna Mae Bullock, was known as rock and roll. (Ike never forgave Sun Records’ Sam Phillips for not putting out the record under his name, a snub that helped fuel a lifetime of mistrust toward the music industry and a generally paranoid approach to collaboration.)

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Tina effectively opens on the dawn of this relationship—Part I of the five-act film is titled “Ike & Tina”—and lays out both early musical triumphs and a quickly-growing pattern of abuse in brisk, matter-of-fact fashion. It was Ike who changed Anna Mae Bullock’s name to “Tina Turner” without consulting her, and it was as the latter half of “Ike and Tina Turner” that she first became famous in 1960 with the incendiary “A Fool In Love,” a Number Two R&B hit that crossed over to Pop. The film touches on the much-storied creative triumph and commercial failure of 1966’s “River Deep – Mountain High,” as well the enormous success of the duo’s recording of “Proud Mary,” which soared to Number Four on the Pop charts in 1971. The windfall from “Proud Mary” exacerbated Ike’s growing cocaine habit and already horrific penchant for violence.

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Tina’s most potent storytelling device is its frequent use of raw tape from interviews Turner gave in the early stages in her solo career. Excerpts from a 1981 profile in People magazine where she first began opening up about her marriage with Ike are striking, as are conversations with journalist Kurt Loder for what would become her first memoir, I, Tina, published in 1986. In the People interview, we can hear an act of unimaginable bravery happening in real time, Tina detailing decades of abuse to a reporter who seems unsure how to even process it. (As Oprah Winfrey points out in the film, Tina’s interview was one of the first times a female celebrity had spoken so frankly and extensively about domestic abuse.) The exchanges with Loder are looser and more freewheeling: “I have been through fucking tons of heartbreak!” she declares at one point, banging on the table for emphasis.

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The documentary contextualizes both interviews as bookending what is arguably Turner’s most remarkable achievement, her 1980s comeback in the face of a racist, ageist, and misogynist music industry that believed her to be both too old and too Black to be a star in the MTV era. (The film includes an appalling anecdote about a Capitol Records executive referring to her as an “old n—-r;” Capitol was her label at the time.) The 1981 People profile came at the behest of her manager, who felt it was necessary for her to open up about her divorce in order to decisively sever her connection to Ike for the sake of her solo career. I, Tina was published two years after 45-year-old Tina became the oldest female solo artist to top the Billboard Hot 100 with “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” the biggest hit off of her quintuple-platinum 1984 album Private Dancer. Turner would spend the next quarter-century as one of the most successful live draws in the world; her 2009 retirement tour drew over one million fans and grossed upwards of $130 million.

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Tina seems intended as a swan song; even though Turner appears superhumanly spry at age 81, both she and her new husband, Erwin Bach, concede that she’s ready be done with public life. For much of its running time, my only real quibble with Tina was the relative paucity of discussion of her enormous musical significance. One thing that has occasionally been obscured in the endless retellings of her biography is what a brilliant artist she is, in her own right: She’s one of the great voices of the 20th Century, a singer whose combination of power, precision, and otherworldly charisma is sui generis in American music.

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And then, in the film’s waning minutes, we are treated to extensive footage of a live performance of “Help!,” the Beatles classic that Tina first reworked for Private Dancer. It’s a stunning rendition, one that extracts the latent blues from John Lennon’s original and foregrounds it, transforming a song that you’ve heard thousands of times into something you’re suddenly hearing with fresh ears. It’s transformational and transporting, the work of a great master. In that moment, I realized that Tina doesn’t really need to explain its subject’s art, because it speaks for itself, well outside the scope of words.

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