In Tina, a documentary about the life of Tina Turner built around an exclusive interview with the star, you occasionally sense a work that is trying to justify its own existence. Turner has already co-authored a memoir, I, Tina: My Life Story, published at the height of her fame in 1986. She also authorized a jukebox musical, the aptly named Tina, that premiered on Broadway in 2019. The film celebrates these achievements, framing them as victories for a woman seeking to reclaim her narrative from the men who once controlled it.
So why does Tina need to exist? “Closure,” says her husband Erwin Bach by way of explanation, but that feels frustratingly unspecific. The clearest reason is that more people will listen now than did before. The film traces the contours of her life as a star, from her big break, which came when she climbed onstage with working musician and songwriter Ike Turner at 17 years old, to the many years of physical abuse and self-harm that followed. She describes the pain without sparing the audience any details; over her words, we see official photos from that era in which, despite efforts to cover up, her face is noticeably puffy and her eye a little bruised. There’s a contrast between the pain evident in these images and the calm, collected manner in which she speaks of them. It challenges us to consider where her pain is being held, and why. “I don’t like reliving it,” she says, a statement which is clearly true and undoubtedly elliptical.
Neither does the film. Directors Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin (LA 92) place a stronger emphasis on her upswing than most rock docs and biopics. After leaving Ike—in a harrowing section, Tina describes literally running across a freeway to make her final escape—she becomes the world’s most popular solo artist. She plays an unprecedented run of shows in Vegas. Her cover of “What’s Love Got to Do With It” tops the charts. She tours the world for 18 months. She becomes friends with Oprah. Some films would paint this part as the triumphant conclusion of her story and stop there. But Tina sees it as the beginning of her life, which takes the power away from Ike and returns it to where it rightfully belongs.
Of course, the performance footage almost tells the whole story by itself. The stage was where Turner felt most free, and each bit of footage is like a shot of pure joy amidst the tumult of her life story. At once frenetic and controlled, Turner’s performances whittle the complex language of liberation down to its essence, and they make it easy to understand why she inspired such incredible devotion in her fans. She doesn’t seem stiff or rehearsed, and her moves aren’t precise like those of Michael Jackson or Paula Abdul, in the style that has inspired most of today’s pop stars. Instead, they shine with an inner joy that can’t be contained. She dances the way we would dance if we were free.
So why does Tina exist? In the #MeToo era, any story about a female star who suffered under the unexamined misogyny of our culture is worth telling again. But it’s in the final third that Tina really finds its purpose. We see the story of her late-in-life marriage to former music producer Bach, who speaks about her like a smitten young school boy. We watch her be feted at the premiere of her Broadway show. This is the reception, the film argues, that Tina always deserved, and while it often feels too much like PR and not quite enough like cinema, there’s a case to be made for its hagiography. After years of mistreatment by the music industry and the media, Turner deserves to finally get a little love.
Tina debuts on HBO on Saturday, March 27 at 8 p.m.