Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

HBO’s Tina Turner documentary retells—and re-balances—the rock legend’s story

Illustration for article titled HBO’s Tina Turner documentary retells—and re-balances—the rock legend’s story
Photo: HBO
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For most of the first 15 years of Tina Turner’s career, her name was inextricably linked with Ike Turner, her musical partner and husband. Ike was the leader of the hard-working and internationally popular Ike & Tina Turner Revue, while Tina was the star attraction. When she went solo in 1976, the fans and the press kept peppering her with the same question: “Where’s Ike?”

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The toll that question exacted is made clear in Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s comprehensive documentary Tina, both in the new interviews shot for the film and in the copious old film and video clips that Lindsay and Martin’s team have unearthed. In the late 1970s, the full story of why Tina left Ike—a story that involved years and years of physical and psychological abuse—had yet to be told. So whether she was a celebrity guest on a game show or she’d been booked to sing a little and chat a little with some amiable TV host, Turner kept getting asked about Ike. Did she ever miss those days in the Revue? Did she still talk with Ike? How was he doing?

Roughly the first half of Tina is about the highs and lows of Turner’s Revue years. Then the movie shifts to what happened after she got tired of pretending her breakup with Ike had been amicable. First, she sat down with a People magazine reporter, hoping that talking about her turbulent marriage would end all the questions. It didn’t. In 1984, Turner had the biggest hit album of her career with Private Dancer, and the press’ curiosity about Ike inevitably intensified. So she collaborated with Kurt Loder on an autobiography, 1986’s I, Tina, putting in so much information about the abuse that—she assumed—everyone would finally know all they wanted to know.

The book didn’t do the trick. If anything, it resonated with so many readers that it became a central part of pretty much every subsequent article about her life and music. The 1993 docudrama What’s Love Got To Do With It? didn’t banish the Ike talk either; the addition of visuals to her narrative just made it more powerful.

What makes Tina such a welcome addition to the Turner lore is that while Lindsay and Martin don’t ignore the violence in her life—because that would be disingenuous—they also don’t let it define her. The movie has two goals: to increase appreciation for one of the most powerful vocalists and most electrifying live performers of the 20th century, and to emphasize how unjust it is that so much of Turner’s story has been dominated by her abuser.

The first half of the documentary should be a revelation to anyone who only knows Tina Turner from her ’80s hits. Though they were a popular touring attraction and frequent guests on TV talk shows and variety shows, The Ike & Tina Turner Revue didn’t have the string of hit singles and classic albums that their rock and R&B peers did in the ’60s and ’70s. They poured a lot of their creative energy into their show, where they covered songs by Motown stars, Stax stars, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Sly & The Family Stone, Otis Redding and—perhaps most famously—Credence Clearwater Revival. The performances were masterfully paced, blending slow-burning ballads with high-energy rave-ups, with a lot of audience interaction. (For a good example of the Revue at its peak, listen to the album Live In Paris—Olympia 1971.)

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Lindsay and Martin’s interview subjects—including Tina Turner herself, plus some other musicians and music journalists—talk about those early years, and what amounted to over a decade spent on the road, suffering unexpected and sometimes expensive commercial setbacks. The thrilling live footage in Tina reveals what what was really left behind from that era: a lot of memories of nights when the Revue brought the house down.

Illustration for article titled HBO’s Tina Turner documentary retells—and re-balances—the rock legend’s story
Photo: HBO
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While all of this was going on, Turner was often miserable backstage and at home with her husband, who made most of the decisions about their careerand who tried to control her through petty insults and outright assault. The documentary covers these events too, previously detailed so well in I, Tina and What’s Love Got To Do With It?: the fight that finally pushed her too far; the legal battle to maintain the right to use the name “Tina Turner” as a solo artist; and the long time spent working off the debts she incurred by breaking all the existing Ike & Tina Turner Revue contracts.

Most of Tina’s second half delves into the comeback years in which, with the help of some songwriters, producers, and stylists who were were huge Tina Turner fans, she made herself over into an older-but-wiser pop diva, belting out arena-filling anthems and sinewy ballads. At last, the chart hits started piling up: “What’s Love Got To Do With It?,” “Better Be Good To Me,” “We Don’t Need Another Hero,” “Typical Male,” “The Best,” and so on. Yet even as she was selling out stadiums around the world, Turner kept getting asked about Ike.

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Like a lot of rock-docs, Tina fades some in the stretch, after its star becomes a superstar. Everything leading up to the release of Private Dancer, I, Tina and What’s Love Got To Do With It? gets a lot of screentime, while nearly everything after is crammed into a final 20 minutes that’s essentially an extended round of applause. After a while, all that hype gets exhausting. That said, the hagiographic repetition at the end serves a purpose, if only because it shifts the overall weight of the story, giving more time to what Turner accomplished than to the man she overcame. In the long arc of Turner’s life and career, the Ike years were ultimately just a small fraction, made to seem bigger because of all the times she felt obliged to relive them. It’s understandable but also somewhat unfair that Ike has always cast such a long shadow. But as Tina Turner herself proves, it’s never too late to strut into the light.

Lives in Arkansas, writes about movies, TV, music, comics, and more. Bylines in The A.V. Club, The Week, The Verge, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone.