We know the Tina Turner story through Turner’s bestselling autobiography “I, Tina” and the Angela Bassett-starring “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” from 1993 and the Broadway jukebox musical “TINA — The Tina Turner Musical” and countless print and broadcast profiles — and yet there’s something fresh and timely and inspiring and uplifting about the new documentary titled simply “Tina,” premiering Saturday on HBO and HBO Max.
Oscar-winning directors Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin (“The Undefeated”) revisit Tina’s life story, from her humble beginnings to her commercially successful but personally devastating partnership with Ike Turner to her incredible reinvention and rise to global superstar at an age when most rock singers are cruising along on Greatest Hits tours. The result is a documentary with more dramatic swings, more triumphs and setbacks, more insanely entertaining performance clips than most fictionalized biopics.
Through a treasure trove of archival footage, interviews with former backup singers and songwriters and other associates of Tina’s, as well as a series of interviews filmed with Turner (who is now 81) at her Shangri-La-esque chateau in Zurich, “Tina” is must-see for longtime fans and, perhaps more important, millennials who might not grasp just how much of an influence Tina Turner has been on generations of performers — regardless of gender. (After all, as the film reminds us, it was a young Tina Turner who demonstrated some killer dance moves to a young Mick Jagger.)
The first half of the film focuses on Turner’s upbringing and her years in the 1960s and 1970s with husband Ike, as the Ike & Tina review scored hits with breakthrough soul/rock originals such as “River Deep, Mountain High” and “Nutbush City Limits” as well as brilliant re-interpretations on covers of “Come Together” and “Proud Mary.” We see classic footage of Tina and her backup singer-dancers (known as “The Ikettes” — Ike really liked to keep his name upfront) lighting up the stage in concert and TV appearances.
In public, Ike was the taciturn, rock-solid band leader, while Tina was the shining star who was equally charismatic and friendly onstage and off — but behind closed doors, Ike was a horrific monster who verbally and physically abused Tina, giving her black eyes and third-degree burns, making her feel so miserable and trapped she attempted suicide. As Ike’s drug abuse in the 1970s made him even more of a living nightmare, Tina found the courage to leave him, showing up at a motel with nothing but a Mobil credit card. The next day, she got on a plane and never looked back.
The filmmakers play audio excerpts from Turner’s 1981 interview with People magazine, in which she bravely detailed the abuse she had endured at time when domestic abuse was largely swept under the rug. (Even the magazine downplayed the stunning story. Johnny Carson was on the cover of that week’s issue, and the cover tagline for the Turner interview was: “Tina Turner: on the prowl without Ike.”) For years afterward, TV interviewers would ask her, “Where’s Ike?” and Turner finally published “I, Tina” in part to put a stop to the constant questions about her past.
All of this is a necessary and vitally important part of the Tina Turner story, but the documentary soars in the second half, as we follow Tina’s ascension to superstardom, starting with the 1984 album “Private Dancer,” which was hardly the most anticipated work of the year (we’re told one executive at Capitol Records didn’t think the 42-year-old Turner had any remaining commercial value and referred to her in the vilest of terms) but sold more than 10 million copies worldwide.
In one of the film’s most entertaining vignettes, we learn the story behind the story of “What’s Love Got To Do With It?,” which was originally a sappy, soulless, bubble-gum pop tune recorded by a lily-white Abba-wannabe group called Bucks Fizz — but Tina got in the studio and made it her own, resulting in a No. 1 single. When Tina takes the stage in a 1980s concert and sings “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” in front of a massive crowd that knows every word and feels every note of the song, it’s a beautifully triumphant moment.
Some 30 years later, we catch up with Tina at the home in Zurich she shares with her husband, the German music producer Erwin Bach. She sounds content and happy and at peace, and it’s just the sort of lovely epilogue Tina Turner deserves.