Sky Documentaries’ two-hour film Tina, a retrospective on the now 81-year-old Tina Turner’s career is stuffed full of footage of her performances over the years. Black and white film of Anna Mae Bullock (as she was then) in the late 50s singing with Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm. Then on into the 60s, after he had realised what an asset he had on his hands and married the singer thus known as Tina Turner. Then flowering in the late 60s and early 70s, as the duo rose to greater and greater fame thanks to the Grammy-winning Proud Mary and the multimillion-selling hits River Deep – Mountain High and Nutbush City Limits.
Then come the 80s, when she made an astonishing comeback and dominated every stage she set foot on as a solo performer. And on into the 90s and the new millennium – including performing at the Grammys with Beyoncé and a 50th anniversary tour in 2008 – until she chose to step back. Apart, that is, from a second memoir, a Grammy lifetime achievement award, a musical about her life and a remix of What’s Love Got to Do With It that made her the first artist to have a top 40 hit in seven consecutive decades in the UK
Even if you don’t know the backstory, it is all astonishing to watch. If you have ever seen Turner, you will know – and if you haven’t, I cannot capture her talent and charisma with only the paltry resource of the written word at my disposal. Oprah Winfrey – interviewed as a friend of Turner for the documentary – remembers going to an early gig and likens it to “getting the spirit. It was no different from being in church.” Suffice to say, Turner on stage is mesmerising and she is sui generis.
She is also, behind the scenes during the first part of her career, being battered by Ike. It started when she was pregnant with their first child and said she didn’t want to go on the road with him. He interpreted this as a sign that she was planning to leave him and beat her with a wooden foot stretcher. The film was made with Tina’s cooperation and, one suspects, her firm hand on the tiller. So the documentary acknowledged the extreme abuse she suffered during her 16 years of marriage before she escaped in 1976 (across a freeway, with 36 cents and a Mobil card in her purse), but it does not let it overwhelm the story.
It also emphasises the refusal of the media to uncouple her from this titillating origin story, their unwillingness to let it go or – even long, long after her reinvention and superstardom as a solo artist – allow her to stand free of it. It also highlights how hard it is to heal as quickly or as fully as one would like. This recognition of the aggravated harm done recalled the recent New York Times film Framing Britney Spears, and makes you wonder if it will be possible again to make a documentary about any damaged celebrity without including at least some interrogation of whether the system around them made things worse.
The film also makes space for the story of her parents’ early abandonment of her – a less visible but perhaps no less profound wound than those Ike left. There is a heartwrenching excerpt from an interview taped for her biography when, angry and tearful, you hear her strike the table as she cries with rage about never having been loved properly and unreservedly.
The documentary ends with a segment concentrating on her later successes, the standing ovation she receives at the musical’s opening night, and on her second husband, Erwin Bach – who does love her properly and unreservedly.
This is not the definitive film about Turner’s life. It is not hagiographic, but it is a loving swan song – she says that this and the musical are her way of bowing out of the limelight for good. It concentrates on the rags-to-riches story rather than (beyond a few snippets that simply left you hungry for more) contextualising her as a musician or analysing her contribution to or place in the industry. It touches on the racism and misogyny that has been endemic to all the decades through which she has lived and worked. It also alludes to the difficulty industry gatekeepers had in knowing what to do with a singular talent who didn’t fit their predefined categories. Even so, there is still a grittier story waiting to be told.
Until then, just watch the concert footage. She is simply the best.