Tina Turner's Life Explored In New Documentary

Mar 27, 2021
Originally published on March 29, 2021 7:27 pm

Updated March 28, 2021 at 5:01 PM ET

Near the end of HBO's new documentary, Tina, the movie implies the legendary singer has made a decision: after this film rolls out, Tina Turner just might be done appearing in public and talking about her life. It's an odd message, coming from a woman whose life story and experiences have inspired at least four books, an Oscar-nominated biopic, a Broadway musical and, now, this new film.

"Some people say the life that I've lived and the performances I gave...the appreciation is lasting with the people and I should be proud of that," Turner says in an interview. "I am. But when do you stop being proud? How do you bow out slowly – just go away?"

Her husband, Erwin Bach, speaks more bluntly in the film just moments later. "She said, 'I'm going to America and I'm going to say goodbye to my American fans, and I'll wrap it up.' I think this documentary and the [musical] – this is it. It's a closure."

If true, that's a loss for the world – if Tina reveals anything, it's that Turner's life story is one for the ages.


Born Anna Mae Bullock in poverty in Tennessee, she rose from a dysfunctional early life to international stardom alongside her abusive bandleader husband Ike Turner, eventually leaving him to forge a new identity as an even bigger solo star. It's a story about survival and the endurance of talent which continues to inspire.

Consider the numbers: Turner has a dozen Grammy awards, many millions of records sold, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a Kennedy Center Honor. She was voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with ex-husband Ike Turner; this year, she's on the ballot as a solo act. NPR placed her 1984 comeback album Private Dancer at Number 34 on the list of 150 Greatest Albums Made By Women.

And yet, Turner herself remains deeply ambivalent about telling her story. The film presents one of those clip montages becoming common in celebrity biopics, displaying the cluelessness and blithe cruelty of journalists, this time asking deeply invasive questions about her abuse at Ike Turner's hands. (One standout moment: when a journalist asks about Ike Turner during a publicity tour for the film Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, as Mel Gibson sits next to Tina Turner, looking on uncomfortably.)

Bach recalls how talking about the tough times in her life can lead the singer to relive those moments – even dream about them – like a soldier with PTSD. In another well-chosen clip, the documentary shows Turner at a press conference during the Venice Film Festival for her 1993 biopic What's Love Got to Do With It, explaining why she hadn't actually watched the movie.

"The story was actually written, so that I would no longer have to discuss the issue," Turner says in the clip, as the film's star, Angela Bassett, sits next to her, a tight smile plastered on her face. "I don't love that it's always talked about... this constant reminder, it's not so good. I'm not so happy about it."

Watching the story of her life unfold in Tina, you get the sense that avoidance is an important part of Turner's survival mechanism. Which highlights a sad irony: The stories of triumph and perseverance that have led so many fans to adore her – and has fueled so many books, films and added weight to hit records like What's Love Got to Do with It – are often painful for her to recount.

Still, Tina convenes an impressive array of sources to re-examine Turner's life, including Bassett; friend Oprah Winfrey; Kurt Loder, the MTV News anchor who co-authored her bestselling biography I, Tina and playwright Katori Hall, among others. There's a wide array of archival clips showing Turner in her performing prime; Ike Turner, who died in 2007, is represented through footage from old interviews.

The facts of her life are the stuff of rock legend. Ike Turner, an early pioneer in '50s-era rock and roll, included her in his band after hearing her sing during an intermission at a show. He renamed her Tina Turner and they built an act together over about two decades, before his abusive ways led her to run away and then divorce him.

Left with little more than the stage name her ex-husband gave her, Tina Turner rebuilt her career and her life to become one of the most successful female artists in rock history. Tina the film fills in the details, describing how afraid she was of Ike Turner, how she tried to commit suicide while married to him and how she eventually fled during a trip to Dallas.

The film reveals things casual fans might not know. That Turner felt rejected by her parents, especially her mother, who left the family when she was young. That her record company, unenthused about a middle-aged Black woman who wanted to sing rock and roll, nearly dropped her (one former executive recalls his boss using the n-word in reference to her). That she initially hated the song that would become her most successful single, "What's Love Got to Do with It."


And that, until 1986 when she met Bach — a German record company executive, 16 years her junior, sent to greet her at an airport — Turner never felt loved.

"I have not received love, almost ever in my life," she told Loder during interviews in 1985 for I, Tina, which play in the film. "I had not one love affair that was genuine and sustained itself. Not one. I've been through f*****g tons of heartbreak....Why can't someone see the beauty in the woman it is that I am?"

Like all documentaries produced with the cooperation of its subject, there are blind spots in Tina. Now age 81, Turner has struggled with health problems. She had a stroke in 2013, was diagnosed with intestinal cancer in 2016 and had a kidney transplant – donated by Bach – in 2017. But none of that is mentioned in the film.

It's arguably one of the most dramatic and compelling challenges Turner has faced in a life filled with them; a woman whose public persona is built around being a vibrant force of nature, who now must cope with aging. And yet, this is a subject Tina turns away from.

The film also doesn't talk much about race. Even though Turner moved from being an artist forged in the Black-dominated R&B, soul, and blues scenes that birthed early rock and roll to becoming a classic pop and rock star popular with white audiences and living in Europe.

It's an amazing cross-cultural journey for a Black woman who spent some of her early years picking cotton with her family while growing up in rural Tennessee. But it's also an issue Tina doesn't much delve into.

Still, Tina is, in many ways, a triumph: a compelling exploration of one of rock's most important performers, crafted in a way that, finally, might allow her to stop talking about a history that remains damaging to revisit.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


The history of Tina Turner gets a fresh examination in the new HBO documentary "Tina." NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says the film, which debuts tonight, seems intended as the final word on a career that defines the notion of triumph over adversity.


ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: For many years, Tina Turner's life story has stood as an inspirational tale - overcoming early poverty, a difficult childhood and an abusive husband to become one of the most successful female artists in rock 'n' roll.


TINA TURNER: (Singing) Ask me how I feel. When things are going wrong, ask me how I feel. The night is awful cold...

DEGGANS: Turner's life has inspired several books, an Oscar-nominated biopic, a Broadway musical and now an HBO documentary. So it's surprising to hear Turner, now at age 81, say in HBO's film that she may be done speaking about her life in public after this movie rolls out.


TURNER: Some people say the life that I lived and the performances that I gave - appreciation is lasting with the people. Yeah, I should be proud of that. I am. But when do you stop being proud? (Laughter) I mean, when do you - how do you bow out slowly, just go away?

DEGGANS: Turner's husband, Erwin Bach, spoke more bluntly.


ERWIN BACH: She said, I'm going to America. I'm going to say goodbye to my American fans. And I wrap it up. And I think this documentary here - this is it. It's a closure, a closure.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: "Hollywood A Go-Go" presents Ike and Tina Turner.

TURNER: Do you like good music?

DEGGANS: HBO's "Tina" digs up loads of archival footage and film clips of Tina Turner in her performing prime, along with new interviews with everyone from Oprah Winfrey to the singer herself. Born Anna Mae Bullock in Tennessee, she caught Ike Turner's eye and joined the rock 'n' roll pioneer's band in the 1950s, earning hits with songs like "A Fool In Love" and "Proud Mary." But Ike Turner was also physically abusive. Tina Turner revealed details of the abuse after her divorce in a landmark 1981 interview with People magazine. HBO's film features audio of the singer's conversations with music editor Carl Arrington.


TURNER: I went through basic torture.

CARL ARRINGTON: Torture? You would call it torture?

TURNER: I was living a life of death. I didn't exist.

DEGGANS: Tina Turner thought the interview, along with detailed stories in her memoir, "I, Tina," would stop people from asking her about the abuse. But the public was instead inspired by her example, especially after Angela Bassett brought her story to life in the Oscar-nominated film "What's Love Got To Do With It." HBO's film shows that talking about those subjects is still difficult for Turner, who says it makes her relive her worst moments.


TURNER: That scene comes back - you dreaming. It's - the real picture's there. It's like a curse.

DEGGANS: There's a lot in HBO's "Tina" that's new, even for those who think they know her story - Turner's difficult relationship with a mother who she felt never really liked her; that she initially hated the song which would become her biggest hit, "What's Love Got To Do With It"; and her feeling, until she met Erwin Bach in 1986, that she would never find real love. HBO's "Tina" is, in many ways, a triumph, a compelling exploration of the history of one of rock's most important performers. And it's told in such incisive emotional detail that now, finally, perhaps, she'll no longer be asked to relive it in future interviews.

I'm Eric Deggans.


TURNER: (Singing) I'm electria (ph).

(CHEERING) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.