Toward the beginning of Tina, the most expansive documentary yet on one of pop’s most unstoppable forces of nature (it premieres on HBO on March 27th), Tina Turner is heard talking about her past, especially her often horrific years with her late husband Ike. “It wasn’t a good life,” she says. “It was in some areas. But the goodness did not balance the bad.”
That’s merely the first of many come-again? moments over the next two hours. As we’ve seen in countless entertainment documentaries, not to mention the about-to-be-exhumed Behind the Music, the basic arc of pop docs is the same: Early struggles are followed by the eventual breakthrough, some patch of hard times, and ultimate redemption. Incorporating new and vintage interviews, archival clips, family photographs and all the rest, Tina doesn’t deviate from that approach. The daughter of a Tennessee sharecropper, Anna Mae Bullock grows up feeling deserted (after she and her siblings’ parents leave to work elsewhere) before meeting and being initially dazzled by R&B guitarist and bandleader Ike Turner.
Rechristened Tina (Ike was infatuated, she says here, with the 1950s Sheena: Queen of the Jungle serial), she finds success but also a nightmarish existence of physical abuse at his hands. Eventually, she breaks free of him and, after some initial stumbles, is reborn in the Eighties. And did any Sixties rocker adapt as well to that later decade than Turner, who seemed entirely at home with pumped-up Eighties pop and acting in videos?
The story is a familiar one, already laid out in two memoirs, a biopic and a stage musical. But to the credit of directors Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin, Tina enriches and deepens that story — and, as that initial statement reveals, in often unexpected and sometimes unsettling ways.
Told chronologically in life-chunk sections, Tina devotes roughly the first half of its two hours to her early days and life with Ike. With the help of a new interview and archival tapes — especially from her 1981 interview with People magazine, where she first went public with the abuse she endured during her marriage — we hear Turner recount the moment she saw Ike perform and soon talked her way into joining him onstage. Lean, intense, and only vaguely menacing at that early stage, Ike treats her like “a baby sister,” as one former band member recalls. And footage of the Ike and Tina Turner Revue reminds you of the magic they could make onstage. Under Ike’s don’t-screw-up direction, the band had a snap, crackle and pop, and Tina’s dancing, which found the middle ground between choreographed moves and wildly uninhibited ones, remains absolutely bewitching. There’s also fascinating footage of the Turners at home in Los Angeles and in their own studio (complete with Ike seemingly snorting up quickly) and Tina and the Ikettes doing their own makeup and wardrobe backstage before one of the many grueling shows the group did.
As in previous projects about her life, Tina doesn’t skimp on the gory details of what came next. Deeply insecure and increasingly paranoid, Ike begins to control his wife’s life and worry she’ll desert him as others in his business had before. He takes his anger out on her, and all these decades and rehashes later, it’s still startling to hear Tina recount the details — Ike beating her with coat hangers or a shoe stretcher, then forcing her to have sex before dragging her onstage. In one of the spookiest sequences in any recent doc, music or otherwise, we hear Tina and her late son Craig (who committed suicide in 2018) recount stories of Ike abusing Tina over footage of the now-deserted family house in Los Angeles. The camera pans over a pool filled with algae, along with deserted living rooms and kitchens frozen in Seventies-décor time. It looks like a house that characters in The Walking Dead would stumble upon during one of their food-scavenger hunts, and you feel like you’re watching a horror film, especially when Craig recalls hearing his mother’s screams from behind the bedroom door.
Even after the beatings began — the first time, she was pregnant — Tina admits, “I promised I wouldn’t leave him. And in those days, a promise is a promise.” She’s so loyal to Ike, or so under his thumb, that Turner doesn’t see she and Ike’s combined four kids (from previous marriages and relationships) for up to eight months, as the duo hit the road. Tina takes us through her long struggle to free herself of Ike, who is eventually seeing other women and doing plenty of drugs. She attempts a pill-topping suicide (which Ike, in a video interview, brushes off as her need for attention) and is introduced to Buddhism, which helps give her the confidence to finally leave him. (Even then, she’s almost hit by a truck while doing so.) We see her slogging it out alone on the nightclub circuit and trying to make a solo-career name for herself in the years before Private Dancer finally clinched her comeback, which became one of the most endearing and warmly greeted in pop. And she’s rightly lauded as one of the first to make domestic abuse an issue worth confronting in the culture.
Again, visuals enhance the tale in ways that books or staged biopic scenes can’t. Footage of Turner on TV variety shows and playing Vegas (or similar nightclub venues) prove how close she was to becoming a has-been in her thirties. A clip of her, Olivia Newton-John and Toni Tennille vamping through the Eagles’ “Heartache Tonight” is almost worth the price of the humiliation. In another WTF moment, a former record label executive recounts trying to land Turner a new contract in the Eighties — which almost derails when one of his higher-ups refers to her with a racial epithet.
Other than her role in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Tina doesn’t delve deeply into the later part of her career. The four albums she released post-Private Dancer aren’t mentioned. More time is given to her meeting her current husband, German music exec Erwin Bach, which provides the movie with a rock storybook ending: The two ensconced in a storybook mansion in Switzerland and finally getting married in 2013. Tina wraps with her arriving at the premiere of the 2019 Broadway musical based on her life — yet another reminder of what she dealt with so many years before.
But as hinted at the movie’s start, the upbeat finale common to most such docs never fully arrives. Recalling all these events, the modern Tina is seen in a dark pants suit, looking like a happily retired corporate executive. As at peace and ready for retirement as she seems, though, Turner appears to be a clear victim of PTSD, haunted by what she endured early in her life. She and her mother reconnect, only for Turner to learn that her mom doesn’t seem to believe her daughter deserves her success and material goods.
It doesn’t help that the ongoing recreations of Turner’s life, on screen and a musical, force her to rehash it again and again. To her barely contained exhaustion, we watch as reporters continue to ask her about Ike, and at times she has to work to contain her irritation. She’s also heard grappling with Ike’s legacy: “He did get me started and he was good to me at the beginning. So I have some good thoughts. Maybe it was a good thing that I met him. That, I don’t know.” Tina the movie triumphs much as she herself did — by recounting and coming to terms with a difficult past. But it also makes you wonder at what price.