The documentary, from Oscar winners Daniel Lindsay and T. J. Martin, premiering today, isn’t a neat story of one woman’s triumph against the odds. Instead, it follows the artist’s constant battles for control of her life, career, and legacy. Through 2019 interviews with Turner at her home in Zurich, as well as archival footage, the film chronicles her fight for personal and creative autonomy. “Look what I have done in this lifetime, with this body,” she says at one point, her voice sounding at once triumphant and incredulous. The gravity of that contradiction hangs over Tina, which reminds its viewers not just of the star’s talent but of all the turns at which that vibrance was nearly cut off from the world altogether.
The struggle of navigating public life as a high-profile Black woman musician has been explored in other recent works: The December documentary Billie and the February biopic The United States vs. Billie Holiday both track the blues singer’s contentious relationship with the media and the music industry. And like those films, past documentaries and biopics about Whitney Houston and Nina Simone, in addition to forthcoming works about Aretha Franklin, all lack an element that differentiates Tina: the subject’s voice. In works of biographical entertainment, the impulse for an artist to control their own narrative can lead to hagiographies that strip their subjects of unflattering histories. But, like the biopic and musical before it, Tina doesn’t avoid the darker chapters of the star’s life. Framed as Turner’s farewell to public life, the documentary instead allows her to define her story in its totality, in part by revisiting—and in some cases rewriting—the eras in which others wrote it for her.
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Tina homes in on two related struggles: Turner’s insistence on making it as a rock musician and her commitment to owning, and reinventing, her name. Born Anna Mae Bullock in Nutbush, Tennessee, Tina Turner wasn’t destined to perform for crowds of more than 100,000 people around the world. The first of Tina’s two acts introduces her early years and the subsequent move to Missouri, where she met the locally famous musician Ike Turner. It was Ike who first called her “Tina,” a name that he chose partly for its closeness to “Sheena,” the name of a racy, jungle-dwelling comic-book character. By attaching his own last name to Tina when they became a musical duo in 1960, and then marrying the young singer in 1962, Ike hoped to keep her from abandoning him after they found success, she explains. “I was truly a friend to Ike, and I had promised to help him,” Tina says of their embattled marriage and creative partnership. “So I was still trying to help him get a hit record.”
Without glossing over the wrenching details of Ike’s physical and emotional abuse (the late singer admitted to hitting Tina, but claimed that the abuse allegations are exaggerated), the documentary highlights the moments when Tina got some respite. Recording with the producer Phil Spector in 1966, she was able to sing without Ike controlling her arrangements only because Spector had paid him not to be present. “That was a freedom I didn’t have,” Tina says of singing with boundless might over the monumental orchestration of “River Deep – Mountain High.” “You’re like a bird that gets out of a cage.” The song didn’t become a hit in the United States—unlike in the U.K.—but it planted the seeds for Tina’s genre-defying musical repertoire separate from Ike.