It’s a cruel irony that Tina Turner was so wild and free onstage, because she spent sixteen years as a domestic prisoner off of it. Ike Turner subjected his wife to unimaginable abuse and torture, so much so that even he seemed at a loss to explain it. This new HBO documentary divides Tina’s life into three acts, with a particular eye toward those early years of misery and humiliation. It’s often brutally candid, but this film also showcases how she refused to let such brutality define the icon she would become.
As a hub, the filmmakers take us to present-day Tina, plunk in the middle of a magnificent retirement at her Swiss chateau. Now in her early eighties, Tina is a study of contrasts: She seems nostalgic, but haunted. Content, but still bitter. Comfortable, but restless. In the end, she’s a superstar who’s forever done with the stage.
Tina also mixes archival audio of her 1981 interview with People, in which she dropped a bomb on the world: Ike, the stoic, bashful guitarist who backed her on live performances, who had married her and fathered her children, was really a neurotic, coke-addled monster who beat and raped Tina for nearly two decades. It’s a horrifying listen, but Tina’s interview achieved two things: For the first time, she publicly holds Ike accountable for his actions, and in that process, her split from him becomes a musical one, as well. The Ike and Tina Revue is dead. From now on, she will only be evaluated as a solo artist.
This sets up the greatest second act in rock history. For a time, Tina languishes on the Vegas circuit, opening for Buddy Hackett and doing variety specials with Olivia Newton John. During this stretch of pedestrian gigs, she catches the eye of mega-producer Roger Davies. Tina believes she can play the same stadiums as Bowie and the Stones, and he immediately senses the potential. Davies introduces her to producer Terry Britten, resulting in the Private Dancer album. That work went on to go 20x platinum, cementing Tina Turner as a pop culture legend.
Even this meteoric rise has a bittersweet feel to it: During her 80s and 90s peak, Tina still felt dogged by loneliness. “I’ve never been truly loved,” she says with deep sadness. To make matters worse, reporters continued to hound her about Ike, a subject she became loathe to discuss.
All that changes when she meets Erwin Bach, a kind-hearted man who eventually becomes her husband. They have a cute relationship where they miss each other after a few hours apart. He couldn’t be more different than Ike Turner, and it’s exactly the marriage Tina deserves. Bach brings tranquility to Turner’s third act, and mends a heart that had been broken for decades.
Tina will please the singer’s diehard fans. It assembles the milestones of her life into one tidy, two-hour package. Some might quibble that it skips over her feature film work, and it would’ve been nice to hear from more of Tina’s collaborators. I’m sure Mick Jagger, Bono, and Mel Gibson would have some great stories. Still, Tina is a fascinating film, and it’s packed with great music. And, most importantly, it recounts how a caged bird set herself free.
118 min. TV-MA. HBOMax.