At one point, towards the end of “Tina”, the beautiful and stirring new documentary about Tina Turner, her longtime partner Erwin Bach attempts to describe something ineffable: the depth of love, the charge of love he carries with him from his wife, the superstar who so often was described in concert reviews as “electrifying.”
“It’s love, it’s something we both have for each other…like an electrical charge. Even though I left her two, three hours ago this morning, I still have that feeling. It’s in my heart; I feel very warm about this.” Bach discloses this intimacy to us in the gentlest of accents, and in a moment that radiates love, a moment that may even make you grab the hand of the loved one you share a sofa with, or even just clutch your own heart.
The affection is so palpable you immediately well up with goodwill and gratitude towards this man, because he radiates a no-fuss sincerity when speaking about the woman he loves, and of course, if you’re watching this film, a woman we love. It’s also so moving because by the end of this haunting and often harrowing documentary, you do want Tina Turner most of all to be loved (even if you went into it vaguely hoping for hints of another record or concert.) Bach speaks in a creamy, benevolent voice, and while his tone is matter of fact, it also carries an inflection that acknowledges he knows the love story he shares with his wife is both miraculous and placidly every day.
This simple moment, of a man confessing unconditional devotion to this particular woman, stands out for reasons so many already know, at least in its broad outlines: Tina Turner is a remarkable woman who, in her own words, “was never really loved” despite the force with which she sang so many love songs. Everything we’ve seen in the 110 or so minutes before has also been about love, but mostly about the lack of it (Turner was abandoned as a child first by her mother, then her father) which led to the inability to accept love, even when coming from massive global audiences. If we didn’t know the general outcomes of what is truly, no understatement, an epic life, the serious harm Tina Turner endured in the first half of her life could have easily led to the path of tragedy we’ve seen so many other entertainers follow: drug addiction, overdose, worse.
After detailing that part of Turner’s journey, which intertwines a story of ascendant stardom shadowed by the nadir of abuse, “Tina” reveals the way the narrative in the popular consciousness about Tina Turner — that she endured horrific torture from ex-husband and business partner Ike Turner and then found the strength to leave — has also ended up perpetuating and triggering Tina’s significant psychic injuries and discounting her hard-won spiritual triumph.
The tale of Tina Turner (birth name: Anna Mae Bullock) as someone who “survived abuse”, while inspiring to countless others, was also the story that never let Turner completely put that maltreatment in the past and be taken on her own terms and as her own person. Watching Turner attempt to smile patiently as Dinah Shore, of all people, asks her to speak about Ike when Turner so clearly wants to put the divorce and darkness behind her, is emblematic of the countless entertainment reporters and tv hosts who ignored common decency and through sheer journalistic laziness made Turner revisit her pain over and over. As Turner acknowledges, her story will always contain the abuse, but the public never seemed to let her transcend it.
Most of us haven’t seen Turner in years except for very brief appearances, and when we see her now in her beautiful estate as she describes all the lows and highs of her life, we realize her decision to open up her life history once again really is a gift of the greatest generosity. No wonder she withdrew from the public eye. It wasn’t necessarily a weariness with performing; it was a weariness with performing for the press.
The story of Tina Turner is of a woman who was shown so little love by the people closest to her, yet, though monumental effort, transformed herself into one of the world’s most notable survivors, and of course, more than that. For that woman to agree to relive her life in hope of showing the hard, co-existing truths of her life feels itself like an act of farewell love to her global audience, an acknowledgement of their support and by not shying away from all the truths of her story, a deep respect for the intelligence of those who are inspired by her. “Tina” is a wondrous record of musical artistry, but it doesn’t let the audience off the hook: it’s also a truth potion of what it’s been like to spend a life confined to the narrative you worked hardest to escape.
In the penultimate sequences, we are given glimpses of Turner and Bach’s home in Switzerland, as a gliding camera leads us through their home estate/retreat, a setting almost fantastical in its serene design and stunningly landscaped richly verdant lawns and forests. The cinematography in these sequences is beatific and lands on us like balm. Yet even this peaceful moment is fraught with import. If Tina Turner hadn’t found the strength to care for herself, the film would have had quite a different ending, one we’ve seen several times before in films about other singers with volcanic ranges.
“Tina” shows that Tina Turner’s salvation came from a moment of self-love there was no logical reason she should have been able to muster, as though she had to draw a bucket up from a well that had only puddles of water. This remarkable and radical act of taking care of herself — language seems inadequate to indicate her courage — led to a years-long climb towards being a musician and artist on her own terms.
“Tina” artfully assembles the context surrounding this act, and not only the act of leaving her abuser, but the long, long act of will that built her solo career despite obstacles that included intense racism, sexism, ageism and quite simply, pure disregard for a national treasure. (It’s shocking to hear the vile racist comments which a top record executive used to describe her chances of getting signed.) Looking back, it’s hard to believe that this now regal woman, who people still pine to hear live or even on record just one more time, had to scramble for gigs after she left Ike, and because she was so unjustly saddled with bills related to the ending of her career as headliner for “The Ike and Tina Turner Review”, took whatever she could get. I can remember a period when she was a grinning and vibrant guest on second-rate seventies TV variety shows, when she sang songs that were not good showcases for her, when her Vegas runs would communicate the desperate end of a career and not the building of a new one.
Turner is very clear in the film’s interviews that she never saw her journey towards the massive success she achieved in the 1980s with the release of her multi-platinum album “Private Dancer” as a “comeback” or a “re-invention” of a career. It was the chance to have her own career really for the first time that drove her, leading to the momentous decision to hire Roger Davies, the Australian manager who saw Turner’s potential as a solo rock and pop act. Bringing people into her life that believed in her and teamed with her to reach her goals brought Turner to the point where within a decade, she was headlining stadiums and arenas around the world, fans singing along to every word. (Well-chosen concert film excerpts highlight the ecstatic devotion Turner’s audience had for her, as well as the wide age-range of her fans.)
This segment of the film, when Turner’s talent is given another chance to reach the world, is exciting and helps alleviate the intensity of the shattering accounts of physical and mental abuse Ike Turner inflicted on her that precedes it. In the film’s first half, the dynamism with which Tina exploded onto stages and black and white tv screens with is amply displayed but interwoven with harrowing accounts of what would happen when the insecure and menacing Ike was alone with her at home or in a car. Craig, their now-deceased son, is heard in a recording talking about how much he was enraged and terrorized as a child when Ike threw hot coffee on Tina. We are meant to understand this was but one of many tortuous nights (and that abuse casts a horribly long shadow — at the age of 58, Craig ended his life.)
The generous performance clips from the first stages of their career highlight Tina Turner’s particular mix of seeming uninhibited onstage while at the same time knowing with intense precision every note she wanted to hit and every shimmy she would shake. What made Tina Turner so sensational was that every time she got on stage you felt like you were witnessing someone possessed — by joy, by love of music, and most of all, by awareness of her extraordinary talent. (You can also see someone desperate to connect with the audiences who were in her thrall — how much she wanted to believe she was worthy of their adulation.) Throughout, Tina says she always wanted most of all to be accepted and seen as a rock and roll singer, and she indeed is that as much as Mick Jagger or Little Richard or Robert Plant ever was.
Just take her legendary and oft-imitated (in tribute) performance of “Proud Mary.” When I was a kid, watching 60s-era TV with my brother and sister, we delighted every time we were lucky enough to turn into a variety show and see Tina Turner start the chugging of the “Proud Mary” beat with that sui generis introduction: “We never do nothing nice and easy. We always do things nice…and rough.” I had no idea what that meant but it sounded dirty. Tina Turner’s laugh sounded dirty and yet conspiratorial. When the horns suddenly kick in and Turner starts to twirl onstage, flicking her hair back and forth with the Ikettes in rhythmic time, we kids could not stop ourselves from jumping onto the living room floor, imitating Tina as we whirled and frugged across our shag-carpeted floor. It’s a shame that the film, in one of its few missteps, doesn’t feature that legendary musical performance in its entirety but rather cuts together from several different performances. Sometimes you just want to see the magic straight through; no need to whiz-bang the editing when you have one of the most galvanizing singers ever as your subject.
This cross-cutting, while economic, also impacts the film’s detailing of the Phil Spector produced single with Tina on vocals (and Ike relegated to the background), “River Deep –Mountain High.” Seeing Turner sing the song all the way through would have been glorious; instead we cut into it with commentary that is compelling, but commentary that surely could have waited a moment longer. One of the things America will have to answer for on its long list of injustices is how “River Deep”, one of the greatest pop/rock songs ever, did not immediately become the number-one song ruling the charts it so deserved to be. (At least Spain and the UK had the foresight to top their charts with the single.)
Even here, though, as we witness rare footage of the recording sessions, we see in Turner’s eyes and her quick reflexive jumps how terrorized she was by Ike. Press photos and casual interviews take on a stark and frightening weight when we know the behind-the-scenes terror. It’s evident Turner was always yearning to break free and to give the talent she knew she had to the world. When she begins her spiritual journey with Buddhism and starts the practice of chanting, she reports her own liberation broke open a new world of possibility. There’s a singular moment when a fan in the crowd says to the newly emerging Tina, “You’re finally receiving Tina!” That is the kind of ‘sixties’ speak that might normally make for an amusing and patronizing aside or laugh. In the context of Turner’s personal journey, it instead feels like an extraordinary diagnosis from a wise soul in the crowd, an illustration of the kind of reciprocal love audiences can have for the artists who enchant them. In the structure of the documentary, the moment seems like a turning point right out of a fairy tale.
Other joyful highlights include the tale of how Turner’s biggest hit, “What’s Love Got to Do With It” did not impress Tina upon first listen and almost didn’t make it on the “Private Dancer” album. The story is rich enough that you feel like you could listen to as many more tales about the other songs on that landmark record, and subsequent hits, as they could document. (I’d love to have heard more about her coverage of Ann Peeble’s great “I Can’t Stand the Rain” or her thoughts about what it was like to take on Al Green’s signature song “Let’s Stay Together.”) Unencumbered from having to talk about Ike or what she did to survive, Turner’s eyes light up. This is where she shines: being a musician, being a musical director, channeling her instincts and movement into dazzlements.
Still, as Turner herself says, despite eventually having caring relationships with her sons, friends and managers, she missed having a romantic partner that treated her with respect and dignity until the fateful day when she gets into a car and meets Erwin. If you know her story, it was an abusive car ride with Ike that provoked Tina’s “last straw” defection from their marriage and business partnership. That she should meet a loving man in a similar ride from the airport provides a healing bookending that is like a Buddhist proverb come to life.
When we reach the end of the film, and see a now more frail Tina being escorted to the opening of the Broadway musical made about her life, you may find yourself filled with gratitude and the greatest of good will that we got to live contemporaneously with Tina Turner, and though it’s hard to say goodbye to an artist who provided so much pleasure, joy and inspiration, all any reasonable person can wish her is as much good health and loving time with her devoted husband as is possible, and even more than that. One of the singer’s biggest hits was the curious “Mad Max” theme song “We Don’t Need Another Hero.” If you lived any time in the last 50 years, it turns out we did, and this particular superhero came to us with a ravishing intelligence, a soulfully gritty voice, legendary legs and glittery mini-skirts.
In this hero’s origin story, a girl entered this world as Anna Mae Bullock, though great pain and force of will became “Tina Turner”, and then exuberantly showed us what it means to not only survive in a too-often cruel world, but to thrive. You can’t help but wonder if Tina Turner sang her triumph into existence, not only through spiritual chanting, but one carefully chosen lyric at a time. As “Tina” so astonishingly demonstrates, love had absolutely everything to do with it.