Back in 2001, I interviewed Ike Turner for a magazine article. The most infamous wife beater in popular music was 10 years out of prison then and 12 years clean; most of the demons had died down, leaving a shy and insecure man. He told me an anecdote about his ex-wife during the glory days of the Ike & Tina Turner Revue, how she would sit backstage calling her wild woman persona up from the shadows. “‘Here she comes . . .,’” Ike remembered. “Tina used to talk like that in the dressing room, converting over from Anna Mae to Tina. She’d be looking in the mirror, saying ‘Here she comes . . .’ Talking like she was somebody else.”
I thought of that story more than once watching “Tina,” a documentary premiering this Saturday on HBO, because more than once Tina Turner talks about herself in the third person — as a business, as a name, as a costume, as a mask. As something that became quite special and very successful but that was never really her. The world loves Tina Turner, but only Anna Mae Bullock seems to know that Tina Turner doesn’t actually exist.
The film, directed by Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin, has Turner’s imprimatur in front of and behind the camera: Husband Erwin Bach is listed as executive producer and the singer, a serene presence at 79 when the film was shot in 2019, is present in new footage and, tellingly, in an audiotape of the 1981 People magazine interview where she first told the story of her flight to freedom after decades of abuse at Ike’s hands. “Tina” is celebratory and glossy, with no mention of her recent health issues, her son’s 2018 suicide, or other painful subjects. The life is still more than eventful enough.
The documentary is sensibly divided into two hourlong halves: The years with Ike and the solo career. If you’re a fan of rock history, primordial R&B, and outrageous dance moves, the first half will be your hog heaven. The footage from home movies, early stage shows, recording sessions, and TV performances are revelatory, and, satisfyingly, the filmmakers make a case for Ike Turner as both one of the unsung founding fathers of rock ‘n’ roll and a control-freak sadist to his wife. It was he who invented “Tina Turner,” based on his crush on a TV character named Sheena, Queen of the Jungle. It was Tina who made the creation flesh and gave it voice.
But Holy Christmas, what a voice. It’s already raw and right on the early tracks like 1960′s “A Fool in Love,” and by the time of “River Deep — Mountain High,” the monumental 1966 Phil Spector single that mysteriously failed to become a hit, it has become a Force 12 hurricane. Speaking of that song, the older Tina describes it as the first time she felt her voice “standing on top of the music.” As heard here, the production is the aural equivalent of a pedestal, one that raises Turner up on a glorious, pulverizing half-shell of sound.
The documentary’s talking heads are few but choice. They include Oprah Winfrey, a friend of long standing; rock journalist Kurt Loder, who coauthored the 1986 autobiography “I, Tina”; actress Angela Bassett, who played Turner in the 1993 movie “What’s Love Got to Do With It.” The film’s title was taken from the singer’s 1984 comeback hit (“I don’t consider it a comeback,” she says here; “It was Tina’s debut”) which won three Grammys and made Turner, at 44, the oldest female solo act to top the charts. She originally balked at recording it, deriding it as “just a pop song,” and that raises an interesting issue that “Tina” studiously ignores, which is that of race.
Anna Mae Bullock was a sharecropper’s daughter from Nutbush, Tenn., who carried an entire gospel choir in her voice; the Ike & Tina Revue was Black R&B tuned to machine precision and aimed squarely at first Black and then white audiences. Tina’s early persona could be read as a projection of a classic white male fantasy, the sexually uninhibited “jungle woman” — she personified the carnality that Motown repressed. After leaving Ike and doing penance in Vegas, Turner told her new manager, Roger Davies, that she wanted to fill stadiums, and he helped her realize that wish. And those stadiums are a sea of white faces.
So what? Does it matter when you hear Turner take the Ann Peebles classic “I Can’t Stand the Rain” and make it a Tina Turner song within seconds, or reclaim “Proud Mary” from the genius West Coast white boy who wrote it? Who cares who loves her? And yet even this mash-note of a documentary observes that a Tina Turner record, with or without Ike, was always easier to chart in Europe than in America. That a US label head in the early ’80s referred to her with the N-word and a nasty vulgarism. That Turner has lived in Switzerland since 1994 and became a naturalized Swiss citizen in 2013. As soon as she was financially and emotionally able, Anna Mae Bullock left behind Nutbush, Ike, the United States, and even Tina Turner. This documentary does everything except ask why.
Written and directed by Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin. Starring Tina Turner, Oprah Winfrey, Angela Bassett, Kurt Loder. Available on HBO. 118 minutes. Unrated (as PG: some language, discussions of domestic abuse)