Review: Tina tells a familiar story with a sense of finality

Music icon Tina Turner recounts her life story one more time in this sometimes thrilling, often conventional HBO documentary

TINA (Daniel Lindsay, T.J. Martin) 118 min. Premieres March 27 at 8 pm on Crave. Rating: NNN

Tina Turner has gradually retreated from the public eye, but in a new documentary the queen of rock ‘n’ roll seems to be saying a final farewell. And, in so doing, she is once again retelling one of the most famous autobiographies in modern music.

Despite being a stadium-level act with icon status, the story of her abusive relationship with ex-husband and musical collaborator Ike Turner has defined her public profile as much as her influential stage persona and chart hits.

Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s documentary not only recounts her career trajectory, but retells the story using instances of Turner telling her story as benchmarks. Turner first told it in 1981 to People Magazine, then in the 1986 memoir I, Tina, which inspired the 1993 movie What’s Love Got To Do With It.

Tina opens with Turner explaining that she prefers to leave the past in the past. But, she says, “there comes a time when you have to say it.” By the film’s end, she answers the “why now?” question quite pointedly, but the most illuminating and thrilling scenes are archival, capturing the tension between how she conceived of herself in ways that challenged how others perceived her.

And while there would have been plenty of opportunity for the filmmakers to re-contextualize Turner in the wake of Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, Tina largely avoids sweeping cultural commentary, lionization or even settling scores with those who turned her trauma into punchlines for profit. Tina definitely frames its subject as a multi-faceted trailblazer, but when it comes to her cultural impact often the film prefers to show rather than tell.

Now 81 and living in Switzerland, Turner is interviewed for this authorized doc, but present-day Tina is a supporting voice, dropping in to discuss how she feels now about her fraught relationship with her mother, her ex-husband and her media treatment in key moments. Managers, backup dancers, musicians, label executives and journalists largely piece together the biography, supported by audio recordings of Turner from her People Magazine and I, Tina interviews.

If this briskly paced film adds anything new to the story of Ike and Tina Turner, it’s the sharpened perspective on the music industry’s role in that relationship. Ike Turner is credited with releasing the first rock ‘n’ roll record, but as a behind-the-scenes figure he was often left in the lurch when one of his acts blew up. He met Tina (then Anna-Mae Bullock) in a St. Louis nightclub in 1957. After they began working together, he came to see her as a major talent that he could keep close and control – and industry contracts helped enforce the dynamic.

After she escaped the marriage and filed for divorce in 1976, Turner fell out of the mainstream, becoming a Vegas and cabaret act before heading to London and embarking on a hugely successful solo career with help from manager Roger Davies and songwriter Terry Britten. She wanted to play stadiums and achieved that goal, with European and global audiences the first to embrace the Tina we know now. While many call the 80s her comeback period, she characterizes it as her arrival.

The best scenes are when the directors give the footage room to deepen the story, especially during pivotal live performances or recording sessions for songs like River Deep Mountain High and What’s Love Got To Do With It. Both of those songs came at points when Turner was ready to bust out of the boxes her ex-husband, the industry and the culture put her in based on her race and gender. And both songs had very different receptions.

But no matter how big she became, journalists constantly brought up Ike. In one memorable scene, Turner becomes visibly triggered when a reporter asks about her ex. A consummate pro, she insists she can come up with a quip to dispense the query. Clearly struggling, her makeup artist approaches to help her recompose.

It’s a rare glimpse behind the armour. Though Turner told her story in order to control the narrative, it backfired in a way, becoming something bigger than she could have imagined. The press asked invasive questions, but her willingness to open up also deepened her connection with fans.

When the directors depart from letting the footage or archival interviews carry the emotional weight, Tina stumbles. A couple of times they attempt to visually represent Turner’s inner life with ham-fisted montages symbolizing transcendent periods of transition.

Ultimately, Tina benefits from time and distance. The present-day Tina Turner seems almost ambivalent, sitting for an interview more out of obligation than interest. You can’t blame her, and while this doc manages to infuse this familiar story with some fresh perspective, it often falls back on familiar rock doc convention.


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