The life of Tina Turner — one marked both by dark tragedy and triumphant success — has been well documented over the years. There was the 1981 People magazine story that first revealed the terror and abuse she suffered in a long marriage with musical partner Ike Turner; the 1987 biography I, Tina she penned with MTV newsman Kurt Loder; the Oscar-nominated 1993 biopic based on that book, What’s Love Got to Do With It?, that starred Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne; and the jukebox musical Tina that premiered in 2018 on London’s West End before moving to Broadway.
This weekend’s new HBO documentary Tina, however, will be the celebrated 81-year-old singer’s final curtain call before she quietly slips out of the public eye for good — or at least plans to, judging from her own comments in the waning minutes of the stirring and poignant project directed by Oscar-winning filmmaking duo Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin (Undefeated, LA 92).
In a recent interview with Yahoo Entertainment, Lindsay and Martin admitted there was “definitely hesitation” in following those other mediums in telling Turner’s story, but they were intent not to make the film a pure exploration of her trauma.
“But in early discussions with Tina, what we came to realize is that trauma is still very present in her life, it’s always kind of bubbling underneath the surface,” Martin says. “In our first conversations with her, we didn’t have to bring up Ike. It came up naturally. And she told us, if she thinks about it too much or has to talk about her past, Ike comes to her in her dreams — or nightmares, really. And it feels like these things were happening yesterday.”
Tina takes what the directors describe, then, as a meta approach to the violence and strife Turner endured in her life. It dives right into the subject in its opening minutes, and the first half of the film focuses on her partnership and 16-year marriage with Ike, who died in 2007. As the duo Ike & Tina Turner, the woman born Anna Mae Bullock’s early career is synonymous with her ex, and the 81-year-old describes surviving the torture in that relationship — the abuse from not just Ike's hands but shoe stretchers, coat hangers and scalding hot coffee, and the sex she’s described as “a kind of rape.”
“Tina is open and willing to talk about things, she’s just very aware of the consequences it can have for her personally, to talk about particular chapters of her life,” Lindsay says. “She’s very honest about her own story,” Martin adds. “It’s just she’s doing her best to live a very healthy and peaceful life.”
The film turns meta when, in its latter half, one section is devoted to the frustrations Turner faced as she was constantly being dogged by personal questions about her past — as evident by some very uncomfortable old interview clips, including one in which she’s sitting next to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome co-star Mel Gibson. As her husband Erwin Bach puts it, it’s like Turner had been to battle, and the PTSD haunts her everyday, not to mention memories from a troubled childhood in a sharecropping Tennessee family that was also scarred by domestic violence.
“It wasn't a good life,” Turner says in the film. “It was in some areas, but the good didn't outbalance the bad.”
That latter half, though, is also largely sublime, as it shows Turner, freed from the destructive clutches of Ike, breaking out as a solo artist and exploding to worldwide fame — fulfilling her career-long goal of filling stadiums (as big as 186,000 in Rio) in mesmerizing concert doc footage. Seeing Turner jolt across the stage like a force of nature, past the age of 50 when the single “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” pushed her into the stratosphere, we’re reminded what a rare feat she accomplished in reaching that level of success as a solo female artist at that age and that stage of her career.
The film also finds a happy ending in the relationship with Turner, who long bemoaned her inability to find love, and German music exec Bach, whom she met in 1986 and married in 2013. In one of the film’s most candid, heartwarming moments, Turner is recounting the length of their relationship from their castle-like home in Zurich, Switzerland, when she fact checks with him in real life. “How many years later did we get married?,” she yells into the other room. “Twenty-seven,” he quickly pipes back.
When Turner and Bach are shown returning to New York in 2019 to attend the premiere of the Broadway musical, it’s noted that Turner looked at the trip as an opportunity to “say goodbye to American and American fans.” Says Bach to the filmmakers: “This documentary, this play, this is it. It’s closure.”
Such phrasing could worry Turner’s fans given her age and health woes over the years. She suffered a stroke in 2013, was diagnosed with intestinal cancer in 2016 and considered assisted suicide before her husband donated a kidney for transplant surgery in 2017. But “health-wise, last we were in contact with her and her husband, she was both in good spirits and feeling healthy,” Martin says.
Her announced exits with the musical and now the HBO documentary are more a matter of gracefully bowing out of the Tina Turner persona and enjoying a quiet private life in retirement.
“From our understanding right now, her primary intent is to live in her amazing castle in Zurich by the lake,” Martin says. “And do what Tina wants to do, whether that’s gardening or decorating the house or just reading a book.”
Tina premieres Saturday, March 27 on HBO.
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