Review: Tina Turner is ready to leave the past behind in the stirring documentary ‘Tina’
In front of an audience, across more than five decades of performing, Tina Turner was in full command of her formidable talent, a prowling rock ’n’ roll goddess whose steely voice and strutting moves lit fires everywhere. Offstage, however, she struggled to control the narrative of her life; at first under relentless abuse from husband Ike Turner, and even after she escaped him, when symbolizing survivor resilience wasn’t always for her the most comfortable image to have paired alongside every new album, appearance, or tour in the singer’s meteoric resurgence.
In other words, there’s the story of Tina Turner, and the story of the story, and it’s the poignance in how those two truths intertwined — necessarily and uncomfortably — that makes the new documentary about her, “Tina,” from directors Dan Lindsay and TJ Martin (“Undefeated”), harrowing, inspiring, and at times unbearably moving.
In this cluttered age of memory lane hagiographies, it’s the rare biodoc with a self-consciousness about how it treats its mighty heroine, navigating strength and terror, shame and celebration with a careful respect, which is why “Tina” is being pitched as a farewell biography of sorts for the Grammy-winning legend (after two memoirs, the 1993 film “What’s Love Got to Do With It” starring Angela Bassett, and a jukebox musical). Because while owning her past only ever burnished her hard-won solo stardom, Turner — who sat for the filmmakers in her lakeside home in Zurich, Switzerland — would love nothing more than to live out her retirement in spotlight-free solace with the husband who loves her, German music producer Erwin Bach, and not ever be asked about old wounds ever again.
“Tina” even begins with the moment in 1981 she chose to first reveal the reality of life with Ike (to People magazine), an acknowledgement that this was as much of a turning point as any barn-burner concert performance. The interviewer’s initial shock at her use of the word “torture” — heard on the original tape — is, considering the breadth of tales emerging from the #MeToo era, like some Victorian gasp.
Then, it’s rewinding for the full saga, augmented by interviews with Oprah Winfrey; “I, Tina” co-writer Kurt Loder; Angela Bassett and “Tina — The Tina Turner Musical” playwright Katori Hall. Nutbush, Tenn., sharecropper’s daughter Anna Mae Bullock had joined rock pioneer Ike Turner’s outfit as a raw, gifted, mother-abandoned teenager, became Tina and married him in 1962, and for 16 tireless years that ensured they were a must-see live act, while behind the scenes she bore her insecure starmaker husband’s repeated violence. The retelling of her dramatic fleeing from a Dallas hotel in 1976, when she finally hit him back, comes with her added detail that she still massaged him to sleep before feeling safe enough to bolt.
Her ’80s comeback (or debut, as she prefers) with the millions-selling “Private Dancer” album shows how a handful of overseas music men — spearheaded by manager Roger Davies — understood her appeal better than U.S. record executives, as Tina savvily adapted her signature sweet-and-tart rasp to new sounds. (The tale of the song “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” is a delightful example of Tina overpowering her skepticism with personal artistry.)
By 1988, she was enough of a phenomenon to sell 180,000 tickets in Rio, the largest paying audience ever for a female artist. But while the fans multiplied, enjoying her global success in middle age sometimes uneasily dovetailed with media/public fascination with a past she wanted behind her.
Like any look-back doc worth its salt, the archival footage in “Tina” doesn’t just mark time, it informs what we learn: press interviews where her hesitation after an Ike question speaks volumes; rehearsal video showing her fierce work ethic; and, of course, the adrenalized performance clips, including her soul-stirring, bluesy cover of “Help!” which, when it arrives in the film, carries a shattering resonance.
Even with the undercurrent of residual pain inside so uplifting a second half — culminating in a cathartic glimpse of her envious lakeside chateau — what we’re left with is an icon’s well-earned happiness as she exits show business with no more blood, sweat or tears to give. Part tribute, part reconciliation, “Tina” makes a beautiful case for why survival sometimes means saying goodbye.
Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes
Playing: 8 p.m., March 27 on HBO; also on HBO Max
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