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TINA: HBO Tells the Story of an Icon, One Last Time

HBO's recent Tina Turner documentary is light on new material, but Turner's triumphant story continues to be one worth retelling again and again.EXPAND
HBO's recent Tina Turner documentary is light on new material, but Turner's triumphant story continues to be one worth retelling again and again.
Screenshot / HBO
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Who’s going to tell the makers of TINA that as its legendary subject recounts a harrowing experience of fleeing her abusive ex-husband by running across a Dallas freeway, the film’s accompanying stock footage shows Downtown Houston – not our little sister town? Or at least that, unlike plenty of Ike Turner’s songs in sound, not all Texas city skylines look the same?

However late it is for Turner’s camp to distinguish Dallas from Houston, HBO’s recent documentary on the 2021 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nominee is rich in stock footage of country churches, tape recorders, bedrooms, dining room tables, dilapidated country homes, pastures, wallpapered hallways, even landline telephones. If you’ve ever wondered how inanimate objects and uninhabited spaces pair with dated Tina Turner interviews, you’re in for a treat.

For lifelong fans of the iconic artist, likely familiar with the singer’s triumphant tale of enduring a violent marriage to Ike Turner, then mounting a massive comeback inventing ‘The Comeback’ blueprint for her solo career and generations of artists to come, TINA offers little new material. Understandably so, as Turner’s story hasn’t changed since she first shared it with the world in a 1981 People Magazine tell-all interview that the film heavily leans on over the course of its five acts: Ike & Tina, Family, Comeback, The Story, and Love.

Each act, a luxurious slideshow of incredible behind the scenes footage and spirit-summoning live performances, blends decades-old Turner interviews with more recent 2019 interviews from Turner and a select few within her sphere. Turner’s manager (Roger Davies), husband (Erwin Bach), songwriter (Terry Britten), and autobiography co-author (Kurt Loder), among a cast of others including Angela Bassett and Oprah Winfrey, illustrate Turner’s legacy and persona better than the film’s stock footage of dramatized postcards could ever. It’s unfortunate that given the documentary’s scale and access that its roster of talking heads isn’t better bolstered by Turner’s contemporary Mick Jagger or by longtime backup singer Lisa Fischer (a beast in the backup vocalist community known for her touring work with The Stones). But a fan can dream, right?

The documentary dives river deep into Tina’s 16-year marriage with Ike, from their first meeting at a St. Louis night club to their bitter end in court where their divorce left Tina with her stage name and Ike’s debts. The story in between – a string of hits, a grueling tour schedule, domestic abuse behind closed doors – is a nightmarish show business fairytale.

When Ike Turner’s early hit “Rocket 88” was credited to his saxophonist Jackie Brenston in 1951, Ike grew paranoid that musicians he worked with would abandon him in search of solo stardom - a complex he perpetuated while working with Tina, who promised she would never leave him.

“In those days, a promise is a promise,” says Tina from her Zurich home in the documentary on a promise that kept her in close musical and marital proximities to Ike.

Given Ike's prolific musical output with Tina, and his "Rocket 88" being considered one of the first Rock & Roll records, he might have been better suited as being strictly a producer and songwriting factory mastermind, not as an artist. But, perhaps due to his “Rocket 88” mis-credit, he plastered his name alongside Tina’s on records and marquees, and lurked in her shadow on stages she commanded; hell bent on receiving his due credit, parasitic of her natural stardom.

In 1966, Tina briefly cleansed Ike's production palette on the Phil Spector produced "River Deep - Mountain High." Though Spector already played the part of oppressive producer towards Darlene Love, he was more of a rescuer to Tina, musically liberating her from her Ike-assisted output. The collaboration might have been inevitable thanks to Tina's rising star and Spector’s contributions to popular music with his famed Wall of Sound, his work with girl groups like The Crystals and The Ronettes, and his innovative command over the studio as recording technology began advancing.

Considering how integral it became to Turner's solo concert set lists, and how momentous the documentary portrays Tina's recording process with Spector to have been, it's a blow, even some 50 years later, to hear Kurt Loder, co-author of I, Tina, ask: “What’s the matter with this country, you know? I’m so ashamed to be an American,” while discussing the "River Deep's" U.S. chart failure.

Perhaps the tide had already turned on Spector’s Wall of Sound by the time Tina hollered at it, in the same way that Ike’s homogeneous songwriting cannibalized itself in search of a hit. When their 1971 cover of “Proud Mary” revitalized Ike & Tina's chart standings, Ike cashed in his earnings, invested in new beginnings, and built a home studio, where he would delve into drug usage and grow more aggressive in his recording process. Rolling Ike & Tina out on that river and into retirement would have been the nice and easy thing to do. But there’s just one thing, you see. He, never, ever, did nothing

Now nearly 40 years removed from her Private Dancer solo comeback, or debut, as Tina calls it in the documentary, her influence on popular music and its pop star prototypes stands mountain high.

She played Vegas for years as many legacy acts do now, albeit Sin City was a retirement playground then, and Tina's earnings paid Ike’s debts she inherited from the divorce. She landed a manager in Roger Davies who proved instrumental in rehabilitating her image, cultural relevance, and draw as a live act (he would later manage high-flying mega act P!nk). But perhaps her most direct impact manifests in Houston’s own Beyoncé, who, after designing her enrapturing live solo act in Tina’s image, began commodifying her marriage to rapper Jay-Z as an Ike & Tina carbon copy during their 2014 On The Run co-headlining tour, their first joint venture after leaked elevator footage pointed to rumored cracks in the couples’ tightly managed façade. Beyoncé would later turn her speculated marital woes into her magnum opus Lemonade; but, unlike Tina, Beyoncé remained cryptic in her storytelling.

Tina’s transparency with the media about her horrific experiences, as the documentary illustrates in detail before blurring the remainder of her solo career into a highlights reel, is perhaps, at its core, what her global audience truly consumed in the early ‘80s, and beyond the Thunderdome.

Tina’s willingness to share her story positioned her as the face of surviving domestic abuse at a time when artists didn’t, nor did they need to, reveal their interior life. She merged the role of Pop Star with Advocate. Most major acts are now, perhaps in part to the Queen of Rock & Roll, daunted with lobbying a humanitarian issue of their choice, publicizing their trauma, and branding it into a conversation piece. That Tina was one of the first to do so only heightened her story’s impact, but the story itself is impossible to overstate.

Its behind-the-scenes trials serve as a music industry cautionary tale, a field littered with abusive figures; its breathtaking triumph empowers survivors of abuse; its soundtrack is a music history curriculum, spanning decades and traversing genres of Rock & Roll, Rhythm & Blues, and crossover Pop; its singularity warrants little wonder as to why it’s been adapted into two autobiographies, a feature-length film, and a Broadway musical; or, as to why the media keeps returning to it.

Perhaps the freshest perspective TINA offers is how its subject's intentions for sharing her story point to her own misconception of the media. In the film, Tina reiterates that she told her tale in hopes of closing a personal chapter, ceasing her traumas, and satiating the public's fixation on it. But the media, as Tina would find, proved an impossible beast to feed, and no matter how many times she tried turning the chapter, it became its own novel, top shelf and endlessly examined. Even with her history's intrigue, Tina's ability to strike success as a pop star at 45 years old made her an anomaly. In a sea of entertainers designed for the MTV generation, Turner catered to adults. She touted her golden legacy, rendering her untouchable, and insulating her from the constant reinvention her younger pop contemporaries would chase throughout their careers.

Still, she searches for closure.

“It hurts to have to remember those times, but at a certain stage forgiveness takes over. Forgiving means not to hold on. You let it go, because it only hurts you. Not forgiving, you suffer, ‘cause you think about it over and over again. And for what? I had an abusive life, there’s no other way to tell the story, it’s a reality, it’s a truth. That’s what you’ve got. So you have to accept it,” says Tina near the end of the film, before asking: “How do you bow out slowly, just go away?”

Her current curtain call? A Tony nominated Broadway musical, an HBO documentary, a nomination for induction into the 2021 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as a solo artist. Hell, throw in Kygo's 2020 remix of "What's Love Got to Do With It" while we're at it. It's hardly a slow bow, ma'am. Basking in the luxury of her Lake Zurich estate after wrapping her 2008 farewell tour would have been the nice and easy thing to do.

But there's just one thing, you see. She, never, ever, did nothing...

***

Personal Bias:

Days before the documentary aired, my grandmother, Rosa Amar, lost her battle to pancreatic cancer. As the film credits rolled to the tune of Tina's signature solo hit "The Best", I was flooded with my own memory reel of us bonding over our mutual love for the legendary rock star. From witnessing two of Tina's Houston concerts together in the '00s to making the pilgrimage to Manhattan for the Broadway musical in 2019, we just couldn't get enough of Tina. Maybe she's rolling down the river; maybe she's mountain high; maybe, she's beyond the Thunderdome. Wherever she may be, Rosa, like Tina, was simply the best, better than all the rest, and better than anyone I've ever met. 

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