Tina Turner’s life story – a twin narrative of global superstardom and escape from horrific domestic abuse – is the subject of an all-encompassing new HBO documentary. Not flinching from the trauma of her marriage to Ike Turner, it nonetheless avoids defining her only as a victim. Far from it: this definitive film establishes her as one of the great entertainers of the last century
The miracle of Tina Turner’s career is the degree to which she has imposed a choreography of power, dignity and musical magnificence upon a private life which was – until she escaped – miserably turbulent.
In Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s definitive HBO documentary, Tina (Sky Documentaries, 28 March, iTunes VOD, 29 March), she once again sets the rules. This is all-but-explicitly a farewell to the spotlight: long afflicted by ill health, the 81-year-old pop superstar frames the film as a proudly valedictory testament, a summation before she returns to retirement in Switzerland with her beloved second husband, Erwin Bach, whom she met in 1986.
Though Turner has not recorded an album since 1999 or toured since 2009, her influence remains spectacular: in particular, Beyoncé has repeatedly and fulsomely acknowledged her as a role model, while many other contemporary acts ranging from Rihanna to Cardi B all owe a heavy stylistic debt to the woman born Anna Mae Bullock in Brownsville, Tennessee, in November 1939.
Meeting Ike Turner and his band, the Kings of Rhythm, at the Manhattan Club in East St Louis in 1957, both launched her rise to superstardom and plunged her into a hell of physical abuse and emotional captivity. Touring as “Ike and Tina Turner” – he chose her new name – the couple had their first hit with ‘A Fool For Love’ in 1960 and achieved mainstream success when spotted in 1965 by Phil Spector, who went on to produce the classic single ‘River Deep – Mountain High’.
Though not a runaway hit on first release, the record had two all-important consequences. It earned the Turners the support spot on the Rolling Stones’ UK tour in the autumn of 1966 (Tina has always claimed that she taught Mick Jagger to dance properly). A year later, she became the first female Black artist to appear on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.
Yet the tinsel and fame were a grotesque camouflage for a horrifically abusive home life: Ike was habitually violent and – scared that she would leave him – ruthlessly manipulative. Not until 1976 did she finally file for divorce, insisting only that she keep the rights to the name “Tina Turner”.
One of the many strengths of Tina is that it does not flinch from any of this suffering – how could it? – but does not define its subject in terms of her first marriage. Indeed, the film shows the formidable use to which she put this freedom, and how it made her a true legend.
First, she relaunched herself as a solo artist, embracing rock‘n’roll as the musical style that, she correctly predicted, would dominate the American charts (and fill stadiums) in the Eighties. Turner had always reasoned that rock was essentially how white musicians filtered Black R&B and had already successfully covered many tracks in that spirit – most spectacularly, Creedence Clear Water Revival’s ‘Proud Mary’.
Like Michael Jackson and Prince, she also grasped that MTV was going to transform the terms of trade and that she had to reinvent herself accordingly – simultaneously inviting and defying the male gaze with a glamorously feminist image, that was utterly distinctive, and bore little resemblance to her past persona as half of the Ike & Tina Turner Revue. This was less a comeback than a wholesale metamorphosis.
She was 45 when she released Private Dancer (1984), an age by which – at least in those days – many female pop artists were already retired. But her courage and irrepressible talent were rewarded with global commercial success and four Grammys (her career total now stands at 12).
Second, Turner decided to reveal, in detail, the violent horrors of her supposedly glamorous life with Ike in the 1986 memoir, I, Tina, co-authored with Kurt Loder. Though some of her team might have wished that she had stuck with the euphorically raunchy stage act and towering Elnett hairstyles, Turner intuited that her growing legend was also an opportunity to break a greater silence: to ensure that her incredible voice was heard in a different way.
Again, this was a pioneering act – more than thirty years before #MeToo – and has been widely credited with encouraging many other victims of male domestic violences to come forward with their stories. Seven years later, the movie What’s Love Got to Do With It? (iTunes), harrowingly dramatised Turner’s trauma and earned Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne Oscar nominations.
“It wasn’t a good life. The good did not balance the bad,” Turner reflects. “I had an abusive life, there’s no other way to tell the story. It’s a reality. It’s a truth. That’s what you’ve got, so you have to accept it.”
As melancholy a verdict as this is, it reflects a candour and integrity that together make this documentary unmissable.
Don’t forget to book your place at the next Creative Sensemaker Live on Monday 29 March at 6:30pm GMT, “Don’t Look Back in Anger: Wasn’t Life in the 90s simply better than now?”, with speakers including Robin Turner, author of Believe in Magic, and Chris Wilkie and Sarah Blackwood of Dubstar.
Here are this week’s recommendations:
Pale Sister (BBC Four, 30 March)
Long-recognised as the world’s leading interpreter of Beckett, the Irish actress Lisa Dwan has featured recently in both Top Boy (Netflix) and Bloodlands (iPlayer). Here, she delivers a masterly performance in a truly original version of the Antigone myth which she herself developed with Colm Toibin (I was lucky enough to see its premiere at Columbia University in 2018). Directed by Sir Trevor Nunn, Dwan tells the story through the eyes of Ismene, watching with horror as her sister Antigone defies the murderous will of King Creon by trying to bury the body of Polynices. “She will persist,” says Ismene, which is the diamond of irrepressible resistance at the heart of the tragedy.
The Irregulars (Netflix, 26 March)
The capacity of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales of Sherlock Holmes to spawn spin-offs is unrivalled. In the past two decades alone we have had Anthony Horowitz’s novels (Moriarty is a corker); Elementary (Prime Video) starring Jonny Lee Miller; the transposition of Holmes’s universe to a modern US hospital in House (iTunes); Ian McKellen as the ageing detective in Mr Holmes (iTunes); the story of Sherlock’s sister, Enola Holmes (Netflix); and (of course) the classic four-season BBC reboot by Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss (iPlayer).
Now, Netflix seeks yet another twist by telling the tales of Holmes’s Baker Street Irregulars, the network of street urchins mentioned in A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of The Four, and The Adventure of the Crooked Man. True to Conan Doyle’s under-appreciated love of the uncanny – try this collection of his ghost stories – the series has the young sleuths investigating supernatural crimes in the streets of Victorian London. Entertaining hokum.
South ParQ: The Vaccination Special (Sky)
Now in its 24th season, South Park is perhaps the last place on earth where almost anything goes. In this second pandemic special, the boys find that the town’s vaccination clinic has become as hard to get into as Studio 54 – the elderly sashaying through the velvet rope line while everyone else pleads with the bouncer for admission. South Park is also infiltrated by QAnon obsessives, who – naturally – become homeschoolers (hence the “Q” in the episode’s title). No less predictably, Cartman wants to sell stolen vaccines to the highest bidder rather than give them to teachers. Still unmatched, after all these years, for reckless ingenuity.
Double Blind – Edward St. Aubyn (Harvill Secker)
Let’s be clear from the get-go: this is not another Patrick Melrose story, nor even a character-based novel in the style that made that cycle one of the great literary achievements of the years around the turn of the century. Instead, St. Aubyn offers an unashamed novel of ideas, specifically exploring the morality and discontents of science: genetics, ecology, neuroscience. The arch style is still there, though. “Ecological angst was in fact almost universal,” St. Aubyn writes, “but most people found it hard to know what to do other than eat and drink around the clock in a conscientious drive to fill as many recycling bags as possible.” I loved it.
A Light in the Dark: A History of Movie Directors – David Thomson (Alfred A. Knopf)
Famed as the author of The Biographical Dictionary of Film and arguably the world’s greatest movie historian, Thomson has always backed the spirit and instincts of the auteur director – and it shows in this splendid collection of essays on some of his favourites. From Fritz Lang to Quentin Tarantino via Kathryn Bigelow, he traces the evolution of modern cinema through the eyes of those who created it. Indispensable to anyone who truly loves film (and can’t wait to get back to the multiplex).
The Interior Silence: 10 Lessons from Monastic Life – Sarah Sands (Short Books)
As one of the nation’s most distinguished journalists – she has edited the Sunday Telegraph, Evening Standard and the BBC’s flagship Today programme – Sarah Sands knows all about round-the-clock responsibility and information bombardment. This makes her pilgrimage to ten monasteries around the world – from Montserrat and Bhutan to Lindisfarne and Salzburg – all the more compelling, and full of lessons both challenging and gentle. An exquisite book.
Chemtrails Over the Country Club – Lana Del Rey (recommended by Xavier Greenwood, Tortoise reporter)
Not as good as Norman Fucking Rockwell! (her sixth studio album), but better than nearly anything else out there, Chemtrails Over the Country Club sees Lana Del Rey depart from aestival California and take us on a journey into her past. The extravagance of NFR is pared back, which is the right register for what’s arguably Del Rey’s most insular album yet. The first track, ‘White Dress’, is up there with her very best; we’re plunged into a scene from her teenage life, which she describes as a “simpler time”. After a decade under an unforgiving spotlight, you can imagine why.
Rachmaninoff Symphony Number Two: London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle
Recorded live at the Barbican in London in September 2019, this is a gloriously lush and emotional message in a bottle from pre-pandemic times. The LSO has recorded many versions of the second symphony – the masterpiece composed in Dresden that helped Rachmaninoff recover from the disastrous premiere of his first. Rattle conducted from memory and the consequent performance is an hour-long celebration of freedom, instinct and romance.
Drill Commandments – OFB, Bandokay, Double Lz
The Original Farm Boys – the hip hop collective based in Broadwater Farm in Tottenham, north London – are now missing fellow crew member SJ, serving life in prison. But the remaining members’ new 14-track collection features collaborations with Loski, Mowgs, Akz, Dezzie, Abra Cadabra and others. Brash, sharp and catchy, this fizzes with fierce lyrics and powerful beats. Just what you need to keep your nerve ends alive in (what we hope will be) the last phase of lockdown.
Don’t forget to send your own recommendations to firstname.lastname@example.org.
That’s all for now – take care of yourselves, and each other.
Editor and Partner
Photographs Getty Images, HBO, BBC, Netflix