Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin co-directed the sports documentary Undefeated in 2011, and their Berlin Film Festival Special Gala, Tina, could have shared the same title. While this is set in the world of music, its emphasis is on the resilience, survival and comeback of its subject, singer Tina Turner. Featuring a contemporary interview with Turner herself, the HBO Documentary Films title mixes talking heads with archive interviews and footage to paint a vivid picture of a musical legend. This is clearly an authorized biography — it’s executive produced by Turner’s husband, Erwin Bach — but it has enough verve and insight to entertain and enlighten.
The film opens with the 1981 People magazine interview in which Tina revealed she’d been abused by her former husband and musical partner, the late Ike Turner. Commencing her contemporary interview, Tina says she had reservations about speaking out back then, so she asked her psychic what was going to happen. The psychic reassured her it would be a new beginning: “It’s gonna break everything wide open.”
She was, of course, right, but it was quite a journey. The story rewinds to Turner’s teenage years, when the filmmakers place her life in cultural context, using popular media imagery to show the world that she grew up in. We see Vogue models and shots of glamorous movie stars — all influences on the young Tina, who dreamed of being a performer. Extensive archive footage shows her rise to fame with Ike, and shocking audio interviews with Tina and family members detail the abuse. Then there’s the heartbreaking story of how Tina’s parents left her and her siblings as children. Rather than reconstructions with actors, such events are illustrated by empty rooms and furniture, allowing us to imagine the scene and creating a sense of loss.
Several clips emphasize how hard it was for Tina to come out as a domestic abuse survivor, but how this helped other women. A clip from Oprah mentions the 50,000 letters the TV show received from viewers who could relate to her story. A big part of Turner’s life at this time was manager Roger Davies, who gives thoughtful contributions along with interviewees including Oprah Winfrey and Angela Bassett, who played the star in 1993 feature What’s Love Got To Do With It?.
A joyful, playful tone is struck when Turner recounts the story of her romance with Bach, who also shares his side of the tale. When a camera leads us around their palatial home, this skates a bit too close to celebrity magazine territory. But the purpose is clear: to show us how far Turner has come, despite a series of enormous obstacles, from hardship to racism to abuse.
Unlike, say, Asif Kapadia’s Whitney, this doesn’t explore its subject’s musical ability in great detail, and that’s a shame. But there’s no shortage of pacy, energetic clips that pay testament to her voice, dance and performing skills — and there’s fun musical trivia, too. “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” was one of Turner’s biggest hits during her 80s comeback — yet it was originally recorded by the British bubblegum pop group Bucks Fizz. Tina, it seems, makes everything her own.
Tina premieres on HBO in the U.S. on March 27 and will be in select cinemas internationally this summer.