In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re in the midst of a renaissance moment in pop-music documentaries. For a while, it seemed like they’d gone away, sucked up into the whole packaging-of-CDs-with-extras thing. (The films were still being made, only now they were seen largely as promotional tools, folded into the selling of a new album or the reissuing of a classic old album.) But the streaming era, with its endless appetite for product, has been a boon to music docs. A lot of them, like “ZZ Top: That Little Ol’ Band from Texas” (2019) or “Coldplay: A Head Full of Dreams” (2018) or last year’s exceptional “Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind,” fly mostly under the radar but find their fan base.
I, however, am always on the lookout for a music documentary that can get a whole lot of people buzzing because it’s about an artist who seems like an old friend, whose story we may already think we know, yet it re-assembles that story with enough hindsight big-picture vision that it can blow you away in a whole new way. It can make you think, “Now I truly know that story.” And it can re-immerse us in the music with an ear-opening passion that’s not just nostalgic but transporting. When you see a documentary like “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice” or “The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart,” you may go in as a die-hard fan, but you come out as a born-again fan.
“Tina,” which premiered today at the Berlin Film Festival (it drops on HBO on March 27), is that kind of movie. It presents the story of Tina Turner that has become, over the decades, a kind of mythology. Tina first went public about the torment of her life with Ike Turner, who physically abused her during most of their 19 years of partnership, back in 1981, when she told it to People magazine. Five years later, she came out with “I, Tina,” the autobiography she wrote with Kurt Loder, in which she expanded on that story in disturbing and moving detail. The book became a major Hollywood biopic, “What’s Love Got to Do with It” (1993), a film that some of us thought was a darkly convulsive and exhilarating landmark. It won mountains of praise for its two lead actors, Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne (both of whom were nominated for Oscars), and it planted Tina Turner’s story — how she rose from nothing, was discovered by Ike, became his star and muse and prisoner, and finally escaped, only to go on to even greater heights — into the realm of legend.
I went into “Tina” feeling like I knew this story in my bones, but the film kept opening my eyes — to new insights, new tremors of empathy, and a new appreciation for what a towering artist Tina Turner is. One of the things that enhances a biography like this one is simply the passage of time, and if you saw Tina Turner live, or watched clips of her in the ’70s, ’80s, or ’90s, you may have thought she was awesome (I’d wonder about you if you didn’t), but she blazed trails in such an uncalculated way that you almost need a film like “Tina” to stand back and reveal, with perspective, what a gigantic influence she was. When she danced, every part of her seemed to be moving, a mode of ecstatic fury that made its mark, most profoundly, on the demon-sashay spirit of Mick Jagger. And when she sang, in that creamy rasp, she was an erupting volcano of emotion.
“Tina” opens with footage of Tina from a stadium show in the late ’80s, when she’s singing “Ask Me How I Feel.” The big hair, the way she struts with killer purpose in her sparkly gray mini-dress, the sweat dripping off her as she pours her soul — screams it — into every note, has a let-it-all-hang-out-ness that suggests Janis Joplin fused with James Brown. Even singing this MOR rocker, she acts out a drama of jubilant energy and grand defiance.
The film then takes us back to how she got started, hooking up with Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm in 1957, when she was a quiet, self-doubting 17-year-old named Annie Mae Bullock. She didn’t think she was pretty, and in many photos she looks quite serious, and for good reason; both her parents literally abandoned her, leaving a hole in her soul it took years to heal. The story of her rise with Ike is a great rock ‘n’ roll saga that is also, of course, a hidden nightmare, and what Dan Lindsay and TJ Martin, the directors of “Tina,” bring to it is a wealth of archival footage — extraordinary performance clips, home movies and photographs that let us touch what her life with Ike the monster Svengali was like — that they’ve woven into a haunting audiovisual collage. At times, it’s so tense you don’t want to breathe.
Tina’s life with Ike takes up the first half of the documentary, with his sadistic insecurity tugging at its center. In 1951, Ike masterminded what many regard as the first rock ‘n’ roll record, “Rocket 88,” but the song was credited to Jackie Brenston (the sax player in Ike’s band), and going forward he developed an obsession with the fear of not getting credit, and with the artists who worked for him abandoning him. As Tina describes it, her relationship with Ike started off as a trusting, beautiful bond of salvation. He, more than her parents, became her family, and you can hear the influence she had on Ike when you listen to a great early hit of theirs like “A Fool in Love” (1960), a jaunty number that ascends on the wings of Tina’s rough-rider gospel cascades. In photographs from that time, Ike even smiles.
Before long, though, he wears a look that reminds you of what Iceberg Slim, in “Pimp,” described as his own mask of cold rage. After the success of “Proud Mary” brought them to a new level, Ike and Tina would go on “The Tonight Show” or “Merv Griffin,” and we see a clip of Ike sitting on a talk show, pretending to be the quiet dude because he wasn’t confident that he sounded bourgeois enough. (He was actually quite a talker.) He came off as the sideman, whereas Tina, with her fast wit and beaming sculptured smile, was as much a star offstage as on. Ike’s domestic terrorism was driven by a nearly psychotic split: He wanted Tina to make them big — and then, to make himself feel big, he wanted to cut her down to nothing. As a performer, she sent shock waves of erotic energy out into the audience, but in private she lived in a closet of fear. As she told People magazine’s music editor Carl Arrington (we hear his interview tapes), it wasn’t just the beatings, the verbal and sexual abuse — it was the never-ending threat of what would happen. “I was living a life of death,” she says. “I didn’t exist.”
The filmmakers commit a small sin of omission by failing to showcase how the Ike and Tina Turner Revue opened for the Stones on their 1969 tour — and, in the eyes of more than one observer, upstaged them. But they make up for it with their look at the recording of (and response to) “River Deep — Mountain High,” the 1966 Phil Spector track that turned out to be the swan song of the wall of sound.
Spector didn’t want Ike in the studio, so though it’s billed as a single by Ike & Tina Turner, it was the first Tina solo recording. There has never been another song like it; it was a musical monsoon that was supposed to take the world by storm — and everyone involved to new heights. Instead, it bombed. Kurt Loder, interviewed in the film, evokes the song’s nearly vandalistic power and expresses the agonizing mystery of its failure to connect. Ike, who Loder suggests was probably all too happy to see it tank, actually sketches in a convincing explanation for its failure. In a clip from the time, he says that it was too white for Black radio and too Black for white radio.
Tina, interviewed in Zurich, Switzerland (where she lives now) in 2019, when she was 79, is a constant presence, and what she talks about with gripping candor is the burden her life story itself became. She chose to tell it, of course, but for years it was all anyone wanted to talk about. She had to fight off the ghost of Ike long after she’d left him.
“What’s Love Got to Do with It” told the story of Tina’s escape from Ike, infusing it with a dread-ridden authenticity. “Tina” tells it hauntingly, with Tina sketching in the violence and manipulation, and her own slow transcendence of fear. But the other revelation of the movie is what comes afterward: not just the happy ending of how Tina reinvented herself as the solo ’80s diva-warrior of “Private Dancer,” but all the hoops she had to jump through, for nearly a decade, to attain that success. She had two sons to take care of, and Ike stuck her with paying the creditors for their canceled tour dates. To free herself from him, she’d given everything to him in divorce court (jewels, cars, the rights to all their recordings), keeping only her name.
She now had to pay the bills, so she went to work — in Vegas, and in cabarets. She muddled through, but what was dragging her down was her public image. Was she still with Ike? (No, but too many didn’t know that.) And if she wasn’t…then who was she? When she landed her new manager, Roger Davies (who was with her from 1979 to 2000), it was he who suggested that she go public with her story. That was the only way she was going to put Ike behind her. When she did, she became to domestic abuse what Betty Ford was to alcoholism: a truth teller who busted doors of silence wide open.
Tina told Davies that she wanted to be the first Black woman rock ‘n’ roller to play in stadiums like the Rolling Stones. That’s quite an amazing thing to say: Even before it happened, Tina saw it all — she knew what she had. But how it happened was just as amazing. The song that revolutionized her career, “What’s Love Got to Do with It,” was a song that Tina did not like. She thought it was too pop, and we hear an early version by the British synth-pop drones Bucks Fizz that makes it sound exactly that. But in the recording of it, Tina invested herself so piercingly in the vocals that she transformed the song. It now sounded like a chapter of “The Tina Turner Story,” and that soaring, damaged, seen-it-all conviction put it over.
When “Private Dancer” was released, in 1984, Tina was a 44-year-old Black woman in a pop landscape ruled by men. (We hear what an incoming executive at Capitol Records said about her, and it gives you a shudder.) Yet when you see her onstage during this period, you understand why she triumphed. She didn’t just play stadiums. She didn’t just hold her own in them. She ruled them. She projected herself outward like few performers in the history of rock ‘n’ roll (compared to her, even someone like Robert Plant looks half-asleep). “Tina” ends with a performance she gave in Rio before a crowd of 186,000 people, and every one of them is with her. To watch “Tina” is to be struck by two things: that Tina Turner isn’t merely a force but a genius; and that love’s got everything to do with it.