Tina Turner: HBO Documentary vs Broadway Musical and Hollywood Movie

The new documentary about the performer Tina Turner includes scene about both the Broadway musical “Tina, the Tina Turner Musical” and the 1993 Hollywood movie,  “What’s Love Got To Do With It.” But it also features something missing from those two works fashioned out of the story of her life and music — how tired she is of telling her story.

So why did she agree to a documentary?

The answer comes at the end: Both the musical and the documentary, she tells us, are her way of saying goodbye to her fans.  At age 81, she now hopes to retreat from public view.

If that might feel counterintuitive, it’s the kind of strategic approach to her life and career that she has taken before, according to this documentary directed by Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin, on HBO Max. It is probably the most surprising thing we learn in “Tina,” which goes over once again the remarkable if familiar story of the outsized talent born Annie Mae Bullock to a sharecropping family in Nutbush, Tennessee, who overcame years of abuse to become the Queen of Rock n Roll, one  of the best-selling recording artists of all time.

“Tina” is presented in five parts, entitled: 1. “Ike & Tina.” 2. “Family.” 3. “Comeback.” 4. “The Story.” 5. “Love.”

In “Comeback,” we learn that she decided to go public with the abuse by her ex-husband, Ike Turner, because she couldn’t get a record deal; record executives apparently assumed she was still somehow connected with Ike. 

It worked.

“The idea of Tina as a presence on her own, and having escaped – people loved that story,” Carl Arrington, who broke it for People magazine, says in the documentary. “Here was somebody to root for”

But it worked too well. 

Every interview she gave from then on, as she climbed back up the charts as a solo act, she was asked about the abuse.

So she decided to collaborate with Rolling Stone writer Kurt Loder on a memoir, I, Tina: My Life Story

“I wasn’t interested in telling the ridiculously embarrassing story of my life,” she says. “But I felt that’s one way I could get the journalists off my back.”

It didn’t work.

The documentary doesn’t give a reason for her agreeing to the movie based on the book, starring Angela Bassett. But it’s eye opening to contemplate the difference between what we’ve made of her story based on these fictional treatments, and the more complicated narrative and extensive archival footage presented in the documentary.

There are some priceless tidbits she presents in an interview threaded throughout the two hours of the documentary, sitting in a stately wood-paneled room in her elegant home in Zurich, Switzerland, wearing a black business suit, the only visible reminder of her rock n roll past a characteristic if relatively tame dirty blonde wig.

As a child picking cotton and singing in the church choir, she tells us, her role models were Lucille Ball and Loretta Young, and she read Vogue – “but I didn’t think I would actually achieve that, because, first, I wasn’t pretty, and I didn’t have the clothes, and I didn’t have the means….” 

She also had no support. “I did not have love from my mother or my father from the beginning of my birth” – and they each abandoned her, leaving her to the care of relatives.

When she visited family in St. Louis, and went to a concert by Ike Turner, a rock n’ roll pioneer, “I was young and naïve, just a country girl.” As in the movie, when she sang for him, “Ike was shocked,” she tells us. “He couldn’t believe this voice was in this little frail body.” But, unlike the movie, she initially rejected his entreaties, dismissing  her with “I’ll call you.” 

He made her the singer of his band, and at first acted “brotherly” to her, according to interviews with backup singers. But the abuse started early. He changed her name to Tina Turner, without even asking her, in order to own her – the name inspired by “Sheena Queen of the Jungle,” which was a TV series at the time. And he started physically assaulting her relentlessly, which drove her to attempt suicide several times over the 16 years of their relationship (“I was insanely afraid of that man”), before she finally escaped.

Given what she and others tell us about both Ike Turner and Tina’s mother Zelma Bullock, the archival interviews we see with each of them are fascinating lessons in psychology; you get the sense that they were as much lying to themselves as to the interviewers.

Tina’s mother: “Some people’s afraid to climb a ladder unless someone’s holding it.But she’s not. Once she make that first step on that ladder, she keep climbing up, up, up.”

Ike stumbles his way through one interview: “….The real truth is she was trying to be something that she wasn’t…She was trying to be what she thought I wanted…She was trying to please me, and so therefore she was going through a lot of hurt…” (no mention that much of the hurt was physical.)

When I reviewed “Tina, the Tina Turner Musical” when it opened on Broadway in 2019, I felt that the “obligatory scenes of Tina discussing her career with record executives and studio staff tend toward the deadly.” I didn’t feel that way in the documentary, particular when we hear a record executive at Capitol Records, John Carter, who championed her comeback, tell an interviewer years later that the company’s new management team crudely dismissed Turner (in the foulest imaginable) for her race and her age – a woman in her mid 40s with four son in their twenties.

That she persisted and prevailed is a cheering development. But the true happy ending is that, after going through “f….. tons of heartbreak,” she found love — with, of all people, a record executive. She and Erwin Bach have been a couple for 35 years, the last 12 of which spent in retirement in Switzerland. Yes, rock stars can retire, although their music, and their stories, keep on.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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