HBO’s ‘Tina’ Inspires by Capturing the Story of Tina Turner With All of Its Pain and Triumph

There is a poignant and simple message in the story of Tina Turner. She is an icon, gifted with a fierce, natural talent. Her hits are now standards. But before all of that, she’s a survivor. The new HBO documentary “Tina” goes beyond recapping a celebrity’s career. Instead it taps into Turner’s growth as a person and how that fueled the music, ambition and eventual conquest of stages all over the world. Put aside all of the elements we expect here, like exciting concert shots and behind-the-scenes takes on how the hits were made. This is a documentary about overcoming terrible abuses and fear. 

Directors Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin framed the narrative around a 1981 interview Turner gave to People Magazine, which interviewees describe as the equivalent of going viral in a pre-internet world. For Turner it was a chance to break out of obscurity and finally tell her story of abuse while singing alongside Ike Turner in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Turner also provides new interviews for the filmmakers where she looks as lively as ever, going over those early years when she first met Ike in the late ‘50s as he performed with his band, full of resentment for recording hits others took credit for. In Turner the rock n’ roll pioneer saw not only talent but his own ticket to prominence. Ike would dub their duo the Ike & Tina Turner Revue and soon they would be rising on the R&B scene, with audiences taking immediate notice of Tina Turner’s electric stage presence. At heart she was a rocker who eschewed the “proper,” almost conservative look of Black American female singers. She moved with an expressive power, both sexual and full of adrenaline. Backstage it was a different story as Ike would unleash waves of physical and psychological abuse. How Turner finally broke away and reinvented herself as a pop giant is a harrowing and inspiring third act.

Stripped of sensationalism and approached with a very emotive style, where Turner’s hits are juxtaposed with a shimmering orchestral score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, “Tina” feels intimate, even down to earth. Turner’s attitude on camera helps because one can still sense the humbleness, even lingering sense of insecurity that makes her rise to prominence almost seem like an accident. Her relationship with Ike Turner was a case of a young girl in St. Louis, Missouri approaching the musician after a show in 1957, simply claiming she could sing. She had dreams of course, and admired the big movie stars of the time, but as a working class Black woman, forced into independence after being abandoned by her mother, Turner never really thought it was possible. Ike himself was wrecked by paranoia after being ripped off so many times, even with his first major song, “Rocket 88,” considered by some music scholars to be the first rock n’ roll song. He didn’t even get credit on the record sleeve. It is no surprise then, that this would combine with an already violent misogyny in Ike to impose his sense of control over Turner and their music. 

And what great music it was, even if Turner began to feel constrained by the late ‘60s. Lindsay and Martin skillfully connect the developments in Turner’s life to the evolution of her sound. For an artist the ups and downs of life and career can be chronicled through their work.  Clips of Turner performing on television take on a haunted air when she mentions being beaten by Ike before the appearance. Much of this is known to fans already from her memoir “I, Tina” and the hit 1993 movie “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” Angela Bassett, who famously played Turner, appears here as well to share what she has come to know about the singer and how it has inspired her. But there’s a new, endearing urgency in Turner herself sharing these stories and opening up before the camera. “Tina” is very much a full portrait in how it never shies away from the pain and self-doubt. In a startling moment in the 1981 People recordings, Turner’s tone grows angry when she reflects on never truly finding love and wondering why. It’s an amazing moment of raw, human self-reflection from an artist credited with teaching Mick Jagger how to dance.

The early music of the Ike & Turner Revue, steeped in rhythm & blues, caught the ear of Phil Spector, who then crafted the overpowering masterpiece “River Deep- Mountain High” with his lush Wall of Sound technique. His interest was in freeing Turner’s voice, which of course Ike did not approve much of. When the song flopped in the U.S., while becoming a hit in Europe, Turner would endure a bit more time under Ike’s control. Some people are lucky enough to find something that helps them break out of a mental prison and for Turner that would be Buddhism. By beginning to practice chanting and meditation, Turner found a new confidence that helped her demand respect and break free from Ike. “Tina” has the universal power of a survivors’ story and the hard road of re-making a life. Even after leaving Ike, Turner wanders in career limbo, perceived by labels to lack identity or niche. 

Maybe some hardships occur to turn lives into beacons or examples for others. Turner eventually moved to London and found representation and a record deal, recording the album “Private Dancer,” which initiated a meteoric rise. At 45 Turner was suddenly packing stadiums and churning out hits like the album title track and “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” A rocker at heart, she was doubtful about going a more pop route and yet by adapting and surviving, Tina Turner became a sensation. Her deep voice and masterful stage presence became as iconic in the ‘80s as Michael Jackson or Madonna. Friends like Oprah Winfrey, journalists and collaborators all speak about Turner on camera with a genuine sense of respect. And she would find love with Erwin Bach, a former record company executive she falls for because he doesn’t have a chip on his shoulder. Despite having sold millions of albums, Turner shares about Bach and even Ike without the slightest hint of a raging ego. When in 2019 she attends the premiere of “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical,” she makes it clear this is now the moment to embrace retirement. Now 80, Turner knows what it is like to look back and realize all one has gone through to get to a place of security.

As a music biography “Tina” is an exhilarating experience in how the music is presented as well. The filmmakers don’t just splash brief clips around, they allow performances to take their time and immerse us in the music. The hits are here as well as great gems like “I Can’t Stand the Rain,” chosen carefully to let the performance show off Turner’s personality and how it would become heightened before a crowd of thousands. Not all biographies of great artists need to end in tragedy. “Tina” chronicles a lot of heartbreak and unfairness, but it soars because Turner made it through and never surrendered. As she tells it, it seems there are two particular kinds of fans who revere Turner: Those who love the music and those who are inspired by her personal story. “Tina” has the same dual effect. It celebrates the great artist while acknowledging that she is a woman who weathered many storms, the kind many viewers of this documentary are also enduring.

Tina” begins streaming March 27 on HBO Max and airs at 8 p.m. ET on HBO.