The 2021 documentary Tina, which chronicled the life and indelible impact of the music legend Tina Turner, was often forced to sustain simultaneous currents of awe and devastation as it chronicled both Turner’s fiery debut on the public stage in the 1960s and the vicious abuse to which she was subjected by her then-husband and musical partner Ike Turner. But the movie saved one of its biggest shocks for the end. Rather than using the movie to orchestrate another comeback, Turner had chosen it as her venue to say farewell. In its final moments, the 81-year-old star told us that the film we were watching would be her last statement as a public figure. According to her second husband, Erwin Bach, she had told him, “I’m going to America, and I’m going to say goodbye to my American fans, and I’ll wrap it up.”
The documentary arrived two years after the Broadway debut of Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, a jukebox musical based on Turner’s life that put her story and the sound she created—Slate pop critic Jack Hamilton called hers “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”—in front of the people she could no longer enrapture in person. This might have been just another case of mining legacy IP for its remaining value, were it not for the sense of purpose that united the two productions, as well as an accompanying profile in the New York Times: the attempt to remind some audiences and introduce others to the place she held in popular music’s firmament.
Turner’s announcement at the end of Tina hit me with an unexpected feeling of sudden loss, but it also felt like the natural ending to the story of a woman who spent the early part of her career being told what she could do and who she was—Ike Turner didn’t even consult her before changing her professional name from Anna Mae Bullock—and then set her own terms in an industry that held her race and her gender and eventually her age against her. With her autobiography, I, Tina, in 1986, with the 1993 feature film What’s Love Got to Do With It?, she kept defining herself over and over again, making sure we got the message. And with the musical and the documentary and the profile, she orchestrated her own exit from the public sphere, as if she were leaving strict instructions on how she wanted to be remembered. “How do you bow out slowly, just go away?” she asked at the end of Tina, but the movie was already her answer to that question.
When artists who have made a profound impact on our lives die, the first thing that follows the initial grief and the rush to share the news is the decision of how to commemorate them: which album to put on, which movie to watch, which cherished passage to reread. In Turner’s case, the answer is easy. Go home tonight and put on Tina. It’s what she wanted you to do.