The New Tina Turner Documentary Puts a Triumphant Final Stamp on a Tragic Story

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HBO’s Tina reframes the rock icon’s life as one of improbable glory, even as it echoes the traumatic press cycle that’s followed her for decades.

Tina Turner in concert in Versailles France
Courtesy of Getty/HBO

Tina Turner was almost in The Color Purple. When casting director Reuben Cannon started searching for leading ladies for the 1985 adaptation of Alice Walker’s heart-wrenching novel, Turner was his first choice to play Shug Avery, a magnetic singer whose character arc would become one of cinema’s most moving engagements with the radically transformative power of queer love. Turner was from the South, a musician at a spectacularly high point in her career, and the blueprint of Black femininity as beautiful, tender, and almost humbling; the role seemed tailor-made.

“I denied The Color Purple because it was too close to my personal life,” she later told Larry King. “I had just left such a life. It was too soon to be reminded of,” she said resolutely, in that unforgettable voice that carries the clarity of crystal and the deep blues of Baptist preachers. “Acting for me—I need something else. I don’t need to do what I’ve just stepped out of.” Instead, she would star in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, delivering a delightfully campy turn as Aunty Entity, leaving Shug to become an iconic part of Margaret Avery’s legacy. That life she didn’t want to be reminded of was the physical and psychological torture she had suffered at the hands of ex-husband and collaborator Ike Turner for almost 20 years—a time that the new HBO documentary Tina makes clear she will never be allowed to keep in her past.

When Tina left Ike fast asleep at the Dallas Statler Hilton hotel in 1976, after one of his vicious attacks (this time instigated by her refusal of a candy bar), she began a grueling journey of loss and re-discovery. By the time the divorce was finalized two years later, the most valuable thing she was left with after the division of assets was her name. In Tina, directed by Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin, she makes it clear that this was all she wanted. “I said I would just take my name,” she says. “Ike fought a little bit because he knew what I would do with it, and it was through court that I got it. Tina.”

She was born Anna Mae Bullock, but Ike had chosen the name Tina for her as one that could easily fall off the tongue after his own, as part of the Ike and Tina Turner Revue. You would hope that this particular moment would be only one of a few where viewers hear about Ike, but the late musician is a lingering specter for over an hour of the 118-minute film. It’s that life with him which damn near comes close to being the fulcrum of the film. Part of this seems to be an artistic choice to showcase how complicit, even gleeful, the press was to freeze Tina’s legacy next to someone she literally ran through traffic to escape. Whether she was promoting her autobiography, upcoming music, or sharing new love, the interviewer always found a way to conjure Ike’s name.

The documentary succeeds in highlighting how unnerving that must have been until it became something Tina resigned herself to retelling with the same bored ease of listing her favorite foods. Yet it’s this cycle that the film comes dangerously close to repeating: the first question posed in her sitdown interview is about Ike. The only thing that takes you away from his rage is when Tina finally gets to speak about the moment she recalls as her genesis—the year 1984. “My Private Dancer album, no, I don’t consider it a comeback. Tina had never arrived,” she says in the film. “It was Tina’s debut for the first time, and this was my first album.” The directors should have spent more time here, started the story of her life at this rebirth.

For all its flaws in framing, thankfully the film is bursting at the seams with the energy of Tina’s live performances, via a trove of archival footage. Watching her move across the stage is a lesson on the balancing act of envy and awe: You’re envious of the sweaty crowds who were able to see her live, and awed by the palpable passion and commitment of a woman who, in her own words, had never known a love given freely. Yet with every performance, she gave herself over and over again to her fans, laying herself bare at the altar of rock and all that it owes to Black women.

 

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