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▶︎ Tina is available to stream on digital platforms.

“It wasn’t a good life. The good did not balance the bad”. One of several memorable confessions contained in the new documentary Tina, this quote also speaks to a dilemma for anyone seeking to tell the story of Tina Turner. An iconic artist known for rousing, self-possessed anthems, Turner had struggled to escape from her life before global stardom – and from the efforts of others to continue to define her by it.

The young Tina Turner in Tina

The filmmakers Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin, in seeking to tell Turner’s story, have taken their cue from the singer herself. Structuring their film around the extraordinary interview Turner gave to People magazine in 1981 – in which, three years after their divorce, she disclosed the decades of abuse she had endured at the hands of her musical collaborator Ike Turner, with whom she had a series of hits from 1960-76 – Tina is a story told in her own words, both through archival material and present-day interviews with the singer herself, as well as friends and former collaborators. Taking control of one’s own story will prove Tina’s central theme, presenting its subject’s past not as something defining, but as something left behind in achieving happiness, as well as huge professional success. As one contributor puts it when discussing Turner’s 1984 breakout solo hit What’s Love Got to Do with It: “This wasn’t a comeback. It was an arrival.”

Aptly opening with a live rendition of 1989’s Ask Me How I Feel, Lindsay and Martin weave archival footage across five broadly chronological chapters with the same skill they showed in their previous film LA 92. Taking us from her childhood on a sharecropping farm in Tennessee through to the peak of her success, their whistle-stop tour of Turner’s early career, from electric television performances to hits like A Fool in Love and Proud Mary, effectively evokes a life in music spanning the eras of gospel, Motown, rock ’n’ roll and modern pop.

Tina Turner interviewed in Tina (2021)

These early chapters also frame domestic life – some of Turner’s children appear, emotionally recalling the violence they witnessed in the family home; 1966’s collaboration with Phil Spector on River Deep, Mountain High; and a desperate suicide attempt as leading to Turner’s “independence day”, the night in 1976 when she crossed a freeway towards a new life. The People magazine interview is seen as a final liberation, even though several media interviews – including one at the Venice premiere of What’s Love Got to Do with It, the 1993 biopic starring Angela Bassett – make clear that Turner was never quite able to escape questions about her past. Such moments take Tina into similar territory as Amy and Framing Britney Spears, an indictment of the media’s treatment of women and survivors of abuse underlined by Oprah and others here. But Tina is careful to present this as simply another challenge overcome, and a precursor to a triumphant final act.

With energetic aplomb, Turner eventually hits superstardom at 44, becoming a rock ’n’ roll singer as big as the Rolling Stones – a moment billed as not just personal triumph but historic achievement. The film pulls no punches about the discriminatory barriers that stood in her way, and enjoys every moment of its hero’s success. It also provides great pop trivia – including Turner’s relationship with the UK, and the sliding doors moment of What’s Love Got to Do with It originally being penned for Bucks Fizz.

Despite largely passing over her hit Bond theme, career wind-down and relinquishing of American citizenship for a life in Switzerland, Tina provides an unusually intimate, satisfying account of personal and artistic triumph, and one that largely sidesteps the usual pitfalls of authorised biography. Hinted at as the closing chapter of Tina Turner’s public life at the age of 81, the film eventually ends on a resounding rendition of Simply the Best. Who are we to argue?

Further reading

Film of the week: Amy

By Jane Giles

Film of the week: Amy

Film of the week: Whitney is a deeply sensitive portrait of a troubled singer

By Kelli Weston

Film of the week: Whitney is a deeply sensitive portrait of a troubled singer

In The Forty-Year-Old Version, Radha Blank hoists her own star

By Violet Lucca

In The Forty-Year-Old Version, Radha Blank hoists her own star

Sight & Sound May 2021

In our current issue, Barry Jenkins talks truth, justice and his powerfully resonant series adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. Plus Promising Young Woman and the virgin/whore trope, Aubrey Plaza on Black Bear, Martin Scorsese’s discovery of Joe Pesci, Dea Kulumbegashvili’s Beginning, and a classic Satyajit Ray interview. Available in print and digitally.

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