As Andy Warhol knew, fame is as much about myth-making as it is about talent. In the case of Tina Turner — unparalleled dancer, singer, and pioneering Black woman rockstar — talent was never an issue. For Turner, it was her story, and who was telling it, that nearly stymied her. From today’s vantage point, it’s hard to imagine a world where Tina Turner never got out from under the myth of the shared moniker of Ike & Tina Turner. She’s one of the only artists alive who could title a movie about herself solely with her first name.
That name, foisted on her by her abusive ex-husband without her knowledge (she was born Anna Mae Bullock), was the only thing she wanted in her 1978 divorce settlement. Ike retained sole rights to all of their recordings, including their Grammy-winning single “Proud Mary.” All Tina wanted was her name. With that in mind, the simply named “Tina” makes a fitting title for this rousing documentary about the superstar, one that finally gives the real Tina full control of her narrative.
Authorized biographies and biopics can suffer from a lack of objectivity, but “Tina” makes a very good case for its one-sided narrative. Directed by Oscar nominees Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin with Turner’s full participation, “Tina” offers the final word in the long saga of Tina Turner. It’s the first documentary about the musical legend, and aside from the fact that no such film would exist without Turner’s approval, it offers an illuminating take on her complicated trajectory while humanizing the larger than life diva.
Told in five sections laid out with chapter numbers and headings, “Tina” foregoes a straightforward chronology to instead frame the film around her traumatic past and attempts to wrest back control of her story. It’s a more compelling structure than the simple historical narrative, though a little more focus on the music would have been nice. Early footage of performances during the Ike & Tina days offers an enjoyable window into the past, especially compared to what other Black groups were doing at the time. As Angela Bassett, who became famous for playing the singer in 1993’s “What’s Love Got to Do with It,” describes it: “It’s wild sensuality and sexuality, and it’s in your face.”
A successful songwriter and musician often credited with writing the first rock and roll song, Ike Turner had worked with many artists who had left him for careers of their own. When Tina came along, he recognized her talent and was determined to control it. He married her, transitioning from “big brother” figure to husband. As Tina tells it, he first hit her when she was pregnant with his son. She was 23.
For years, Tina was controlled by Ike, who kept her under his thumb along with nearly constant verbal, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. Even after she broke free of Ike in the mid-1970s, she struggled to remount her career as a solo artist. When she began speaking about the abuse publicly, first in interviews and then in an autobiography, in an attempt to move out of Ike’s shadow, the story itself took over. Watching Turner perform, her incredible stage presence is electrifying even in shaky concert footage; it’s hard to imagine anything pulling focus from this fireball of energy. And yet, Tina Turner was nearly eclipsed by her own story. Such is the power of myth-making.
For those too young to remember her fallow period, the most illuminating part of “Tina” will be the ’80s era when she was still trying to make it as a solo act. After the divorce settlement left her with nothing, Tina had four sons to support. She took any TV appearance, including “Hollywood Squares,” and performed a successful cabaret act in Las Vegas. But she wanted to sell out stadiums. It wasn’t until she met her manager Roger Davies, while singing support in an Olivia Newton-John video, that she began to reinvent herself as the first woman rockstar.
Davies introduced her to Terry Britten, who had written a song called “What’s Love Got to Do with It,” which Britten calls “the worst demo we’ve done to this day.” Tina did it her way, as she had done with “Proud Mary” so many years before, transforming the cheesy pop ballad into a powerhouse chart-topper. She recorded “Private Dancer,” her first solo album, in less than two weeks. It went on to sell 20 million copies. She ditched the glittering Bob Mackie gowns and cut her hair short, honing what became her signature look. Though the film calls this period her comeback, Tina sees it as an arrival.
“I don’t consider it a comeback,” she says in a sit-down interview, draped in an elegant black silk tuxedo. “Tina had never arrived. It was Tina’s debut.”
With a reverent flourish, “Tina” puts the final button on Tina Turner’s story. It’s been told again and again; first in “I, Tina,” the autobiography that inspired “What’s Love Got to Do with It,” yet another version of events. The well-received “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical,” written by Katori Hall, offered a glitzier twist for Broadway. Each iteration delivers something closer to the unvarnished truth, but truth may not be Tina’s ultimate goal. For now, she’s ready to lay her story to rest.
“Tina” premiered at the 2021 Berlin Film Festival as a Special Gala Presentation. Available on HBO Max March 27 in the US, and internationally in select cinemas and at home this summer.