You may think you know Tina Turner’s story. It’s been the source of a best-selling autobiography, an Oscar-winning movie, and two stage musicals. As she made plans to retire from the public eye, she sat down with filmmakers Dan Lindsay and TJ Martin — who directed the acclaimed 2011 documentary Undefeated — to tell her life story once and for all. Tina is a thrilling, poignant portrait of the Queen of Rock and Roll.
Lindsay and Martin drew from a wealth of archival footage to tell Turner’s story. Born Anna Mae Bullock, the singer grew up in a family of sharecroppers and learned to sing as a choir girl in St. Louis. As a teenager going to nightclub shows, she begged bandleader Ike Turner to let her sing. After allowing her to perform with — and inviting her to become a full-time member of — his band, Ike eventually married Tina. Their relationship was notorious for the abuse Ike frequently brought onto his wife, and her survival became an essential part of her story. The filmmakers’ use of archival footage allows audiences to see Tina at the heights of her powers and to put her early career into a historical context, but it also makes Ike’s treatment of Tina more immediate. Home movie footage of the pair in their studio jump cuts around Ike’s drug use and glitches to black as he begins yelling at her, and something about the low-tech, high-contrast footage and jumpy editing makes these scenes as horrific as anything in the biopic What’s Love Got to Do With It.
The scenes after Tina is able to leave her husband feel celebratory. While she and her manager Roger Davies talk about the less glamorous gigs she took to keep the lights on after she was granted a divorce, the footage of Tina performing her nightclub act find her in her element. In addition, they ably set up the audience for her years as a stadium headliner, a movie star, and a pop cultural icon. Lindsay and Martin show Turner’s life from the perspective of the press, and they’re open about the narrative created around her, but at times their perspective undercuts their subject. We’re told that Turner was underestimated for her intellect and spirituality in an early part of the film, but apart from a brief discussion of how Buddhism played a role in her eventual decision to leave her husband, we don’t hear much about her spiritual practice or creative process; instead, we get montage after montage of reporters asking her about her relationship with Ike and calling her “Ike and Tina”. After coauthoring an autobiography and making a biopic about her abusive relationship so she wouldn’t have to keep talking about them, you would think the filmmakers would afford more time to other facets of her career.
The interviews that stuck with me the most were those with Black women who were inspired by Turner’s regal stage presence, her singing voice, and her tragedy-to-triumph story. “When I saw her, I said, ‘I want that,'” Oprah Winfrey recalls, while playwright Katori Hall talks about how remarkable Turner’s second act — as a middle-aged woman selling out stadiums and appearing on MTV — was. These interviews, combined with fan testimonials and other footage from Oprah’s “Tina Day”, shows audiences how important it was for her to go public and what she meant to a wide swath of her fanbase.
Tina premiered a month and a half after the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announced that Tina Turner was one of the nominees in their 2021 class, and it’s hard not to see view the documentary in that context. The film eludes some of Turner’s recent health problems, choosing instead to portray her as an indomitable pop star who played an important role in the development of the rock and roll genre. Here’s hoping Tina — an imperfect but ultimately satisfying final word from rock royalty — paves the subject’s way to Cleveland.