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From her rise to fame as half of the duo Ike & Tina Turner, to her escape from an abusive marriage and the struggle to establish herself as a solo artist, and on to a career comeback that saw her become one of the best-selling recording artists of all time, Tina Turner’s life story has been told numerous times — first in her 1986 memoir, I, Tina, which was the basis of the 1993 biopic What’s Love Got to Do With It, and most recently with the Tony-nominated Tina: The Tina Turner Musical. But Dan Lindsay and T. J. Martin, directors of HBO’s Tina, were less interested in having Turner rehash the traumatic elements of her life all over again. Instead, the duo examine how Turner’s story of survival is an unshakable part of her public identity — despite the singer’s own desire to put the past firmly behind her. The directors spoke to THR about their documentary and the tricky balance of telling Turner’s story with respect.
How did the two of you become involved in this project?
DAN LINDSAY Simon and Jonathan Chinn, who produced our film LA 92, were looking to make a deal with Tina to do a documentary. We were surprised when they approached us to do it, because we had some concerns about whether we were the right people to do it. As we dove into Tina’s story, we realized that there’s an incredible narrative journey that happens to involve one of the most iconic musical performers.
Was it daunting to find a new way in and offer the definitive version of Tina Turner’s story?
T. J. MARTIN Absolutely. Her persona is so well respected and celebrated, and she means a lot of different things to a lot of people. We were figuring how we fit into this bigger picture of Tina’s story, and a lot of it came from sitting down with Tina herself. [Her relationship with Ike] can be really painful to talk about — the trauma comes back and manifests itself in nightmares. It’s like the abuse happened yesterday. It shouldn’t have been a revelation, but we didn’t think about how palpable, how alive the trauma can be. She’s making a decision to survive every single day. Tina Turner is a symbol of resilience and strength, but as a public we’ve forgotten that she’s human.
I’m an elder millennial, so I’ve only known Tina Turner as a solo artist. While I knew about her relationship with Ike, I was unaware how much work it took, after she left, to establish herself as a solo performer.
LINDSAY T. J. and I are just at the tail end of Gen X — anyone older than us was like, “Oh, everybody knows that story.” And people younger than us said, “Oh, the woman with the big hair?” (Laughs.) We had to figure out a way for the narrative to appeal to the uninitiated, too. By firmly placing it in Tina’s POV and showing how she wrestles with the narrative brought new insight for the people who thought they knew [her story]. Despite how incredible Angela Bassett is in the movie, that’s not Tina. It’s one thing to have someone take Tina’s story into their own words; it’s a whole other thing to hear it from her mouth. She first told this story to People magazine, then to Kurt Loder for her memoir, but the unfiltered Tina didn’t exist in the archives.
Can you tell me about finding the balance of having her retell the story without dredging up the trauma once again?
LINDSAY Once we understood Tina’s relationship to her story, we wanted to reflect on how she lives with it.
MARTIN We were really conscious of not triggering her, of doing the exact thing that we’re [commenting on] in the film. We’re in a privileged position, to be third-party witnesses to somebody’s story. We are able to potentially see certain blind spots they don’t see; there’s a certain understanding of her life that maybe she hadn’t thought about before. What was wonderful with Tina is that she’s willing to talk about anything, but she knows there are consequences if she dives into it, so she has to prepare herself.
As you say, we hold her in high esteem as a survivor, but do you get the sense that she would rather Ike be a footnote in her story?
LINDSAY You can’t tell her story without talking about Ike … and people need to handle that with respect. Like, in the middle of an interview about [her role in] Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, she was asked how she feels about Ike being arrested for cocaine possession. [We want the audience] not to freeze her in a moment in time. Her life is more than that, and we wanted to show that in a multifaceted, holistic, three-dimensional way.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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