'Tina': Film Review | Berlin 2021

TINA
Courtesy of HBO

Tina Turner

Simply the best.
3/27/2021

The Queen of Rock 'n' Roll, who survived an abusive marriage to rebuild herself as a superstar solo artist, looks back over her life and career in this inspirational portrait for HBO.

Toward the end of Tina, the revealing documentary tribute by Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin for HBO, Tina Turner is seen in an extended concert clip performing the Beatles' "Help" as a decelerated ballad — intimate, melancholy and full of feeling. It's the polar opposite of so many of her most iconic stage moments, either as an R&B human tornado or a growling rock 'n' roll lioness. But the takeaway from this uplifting look back over Turner's tumultuous life and five-decade career in music is that she got where she is not by relying on the help of others but through her own remarkable resilience and self-determination.

In the #MeToo era, Turner's story is more relevant than ever, particularly because she spoke out about the ordeal of her marriage at a time when the majority of women in the public eye remained silent about their experience of domestic violence. But it's Turner's refusal to let herself be defined as a victim that gives her strength.

Co-directors Lindsay and Martin, whose 2011 film about hard-won high school football triumph, Undefeated, scored a documentary Oscar, work from two principal threads here. One is a candid present-day interview with Turner in her Swiss chateau on Lake Zurich; the other is the 1981 People magazine profile by then-music editor Carl Arrington, in which the singer went public for the first time about the trauma of her marriage to brutally controlling musician Ike Turner.

Revisited via the original interview audio tapes as well as commentary from Arrington, Oprah Winfrey and other friends, family and collaborators, that feature is shown to have reverberated for years afterward, when Turner herself was more than ready to move on.

She acknowledges that one key development in her life that saved her was Buddhism. There's a stirring sense of enlightened acceptance in her composure as she talks about the futility of dwelling on hate and grievances. That applies whether it's the Svengali husband she outgrew or the white male-dominated American recording industry that held her back with its strict categorization of what a Black female artist could accomplish.

Turner's life is no stranger to biographical treatment. She co-authored a 1986 autobiography, I, Tina, with Rolling Stone editor Kurt Loder; that book was adapted for the screen in 1993's What's Love Got to Do With It, which earned Oscar nominations for Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne; and a bio-musical that bears her name opened on Broadway in 2019 and was playing to packed houses until theaters went dark a year ago due to the COVID pandemic. Loder, Bassett and playwright Katori Hall, who wrote the book for the musical, are among the insightful interviewees here.

No matter how many times Turner's story has been told, and from however many different angles, it remains a riveting life. It's legitimately inspirational, unlike so many cases in which that word is rendered trite from overuse. Given the ageism of the pop music industry, just the fact that she reinvented herself as a global superstar at 45 when many had written her off as a '70s relic out to pasture in Vegas is extraordinary.

When you consider her humble origins, born to Tennessee cotton field sharecroppers who abandoned her at a young age, the summits Turner climbed are even more impressive. And yet, listening to her retell it all, her driving self-belief is distinguished by the seeming absence of ego.

Edited by Martin with Carter Gunn and Taryn Gould, Tina is an archival goldmine of choice footage and photographs from every decade. Broken down into five individually titled parts, the film spans her first stage appearances in her teens in the late '50s with Ike and his Kings of Rhythm band in St. Louis, Missouri, through to her ownership of an adoring Barcelona stadium crowd in 1990, singing "Simply the Best."

For lifelong fans, the thrill of watching Tina and backup trio the Ikettes surge through vintage hits like "Proud Mary" is eternally electrifying, the seismic physicality of their bodies seeming almost superhuman. Likewise, the still-knockout audio impact of "River Deep — Mountain High," on which producer Phil Spector maneuvered Ike out of the way to unleash Tina against his famed "Wall of Sound." Given the silky-smooth vocals and dance moves of Motown's biggest female crossover success of the time, The Supremes, it's perhaps not surprising that the now-classic "River Deep" was too raw and wild for the mainstream U.S. charts back then, finding far greater success in Britain.

Turner also went to London in the 1980s, under the guidance of another compelling interviewee, Australian manager Roger Davies, when America proved unreceptive to the singer's makeover as a rock artist.

Songwriter Terry Britten chimes in hilariously alongside Turner, recalling her initial resistance to what became her breakthrough solo hit, "What's Love Got to Do With It." Britten describes it as a dud demo, and a cheesy video of the original recording by vanilla 1980s Brit-pop quartet Bucks Fizz does nothing to dispute Turner's lack of faith in the track. The description of her remaking the song serves as a great example of how Turner's voice was never overshadowed, even by the most intricate synth layering of '80s pop production.

Turner strutting around New York City in the music video for that song, wearing a black leather mini-dress, denim jacket, firetruck-red lipstick and an outsize mane, remains an indelible image of the era. Contextualized here against the punishing life she escaped, it captures the essence of one of the great women of rock in a moment of jubilant emancipation. I still recall sitting in the press box feeling the ferocious energy radiating off her in a show around that time at London's Wembley Arena.

This documentary seems designed as part of the closure process of putting a cap on Turner's career. That's reflected in opening night footage on Broadway of Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, with Tony-nominated star Adrienne Warren ushering her from the wings onto the stage to take an exultant bow. And the final chapter details Turner's well-earned gift of late-in-life love and stability with German music executive Erwin Bach, whom she met in 1986 and married 27 years later.

As densely packed and vigorously paced as the film is, not every beloved hit gets a mention, with notable omissions including "Nutbush City Limits," her killer "Acid Queen" number in Ken Russell's film of Tommy, the Al Green cover "Let's Stay Together," "Private Dancer" and "We Don't Need Another Hero." With a back catalog this extensive, however, it's churlish to complain.

Shots from the film that yielded that latter song, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, at least show Turner in her chainmail-clad glory as Bartertown badass Aunt Entity. They also serve to fold Loder into the story — he went on location to cover the shoot for Rolling Stone and approached Davies about doing a biography. There's a chat-show clip from the time that shows Mel Gibson looking bored while Turner deflects questions about her stormy marriage for the thousandth time. The media's insistence on framing her story through the Ike chapter, long after she had achieved solo success, is a recurrent theme, along with her refusal to let past unhappiness crush her.

To the extent that Tina does talk about Ike's physical and sexual abuse, it's with forgiveness and even sympathy for the insecurities that plagued him. The recollections of one of her sons, Craig Turner, reveal more lasting wounds, an aspect that resonates in the film's dedication to him — along with former Ike & Tina Turner Revue road manager and lifelong friend Rhonda Graam (another invaluable interviewee), who died in January. The 2018 suicide of Craig Turner is not mentioned, but sorrow hangs over his account of childhood trauma.

Making subtle use of a delicate score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Juuriaans, the directors allow ample space for somber reflections without ever detracting from the fact that Tina, fundamentally, is a celebration, a unique survival story. Watching Turner achieve her dream by holding a crowd of 186,000 in the palm of her hand while singing "I Can't Stand the Rain" in a record-breaking 1988 Rio show, the high is contagious.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Berlinale Special)
Production companies: HBO Documentary Films, Lightbox
Distribution: HBO/HBO Max, Universal, Altitude (streaming in U.S. March 27; in select theaters and VOD internationally this summer)
With: Tina Turner, Carl Arrington, Angela Bassett, Ann Behringer, Terry Britten, Roger Davies, Rhonda Graam, Katori Hall, Kurt Loder, Rupert Perry, Le’Jeune Richardson, Jimmy Thomas, Oprah Winfrey
Directors: Dan Lindsay, T.J. Martin
Producers: Simon Chinn, Jonathan Chinn, Diane Becker
Executive producers: Erwin Bach, Tali Pelman, Nancy Abraham, Lisa Heller, Will Clarke, Andy Mayson, Mike Runagall, David Gilbery, Charles Dorfman
Directors of photography: Megan Stacey, Dimitri Karakatsanis
Music: Danny Bensi, Saunder Juuriaans
Editors: Carter Gunn, T.J. Martin, Taryn Gould

118 minutes