Reconsidering the Story Tina Turner's Been Telling for 40 Years

Reconsidering the Story Tina Turner's Been Telling for 40 Years

For a virtuoso performer whose sublime efforts in entertaining the masses are telegraphed in even the smallest nuance—the articulated micro-movements of her prance across the stage, the twitches and strain of her face muscles changing with each passing second, her wail that tapers into a snarl—Tina Turner frequently projects a surprising attitude in a new documentary about her life: reluctance.

“The first interview we did in February 2019, we were sitting down to do the interview and I was like, ‘How are you doing? How are you feeling?’ She was like, ‘I don’t want to do this,’” Daniel Lindsay said via Zoom recently. Lindsay is one of the directors of Tina, which debuts Saturday on HBO. “I knew she didn’t mean the whole documentary, but the interview. We were like, ‘Let’s start there. Let’s talk about that.’”

The story of her fleeing Ike Turner to experience the greatest success of her career has defined Turner’s public profile

Reluctance has been a motif throughout Turner’s public life after her divorce from Ike Turner, the rock and roll pioneer who she says abused her horrifically for years during their marriage and musical collaboration. As Turner recounts in Tina, she was initially moved to tell her story to People magazine in 1981 to once and for all sever her image from that of Ike, whom she finally escaped in 1976. The opposite ended up happening. The story of her fleeing Ike Turner to experience the greatest success of her career, ascending to bonafide rock god in the ‘80s, has not just defined Turner’s public profile, it’s achieved something of a legendary status within the annals of American pop culture.

That story gave Lindsay and his directing partner, T.J. Martin something to chew on that other subjects in this realm might have been lacking. The pair is extremely selective about their projects, having won the 2012 Oscar for Best Documentary Feature for The Undefeated. (The victory made Martin the first Black person to win in that category.) “Part of the reason we were so hesitant to sign on to direct the film is these kind of films can be—I hope ours is not—the Marvel movies of the documentary world: bigger budgets and built-in audience,” explained Lindsay. “We knew we were never going to do a traditional rock doc, as it were, where we were just gonna dissect her musical catalog and talk about Tina as a performer.”

That’s not to say there’s no sense of Turner’s storied career. Indeed the film is stocked with archival footage of artistic highs from the Ike and post-Ike eras (“River Deep, Mountain High,” Tuner’s collaboration with Phil Spector in the former camp, “What’s Love Got To Do With It” in the latter). Lindsay and Martin regularly employ montage of stills, some frenetically edited, during the musical moments as if to cram as much of an icon as possible onto the screen while reminding you to take it all in, frame by frame. But in order to make a movie worth watching, they were posed by a unique challenge that Turner herself voiced during their first meeting.

I think her exact words were, ‘There’s been a book, a movie, and a musical. What the hell are we going to do a documentary for?’

“I think her exact words were, ‘There’s been a book, a movie, and a musical. What the hell are we going to do a documentary for?,’” recalled Martin in reference to Turner’s 1985 memoir I, Tina; the 1993 film adaptation of it, What’s Love Got To Do With It; and the more recent Broadway production TINA – The Tina Turner Musical. “We were like, ‘We had the same question. That’s why we’re here.’ To her credit, she broke the ice and it created an honest space for us to be in. It was really in those first conversations that we recognized how the trauma of her past is still right underneath the surface. It’s always lurking around the corner.”

The project came about as a result of work Simon Chinn and Jonathan Chinn did with Turner on promo videos for the Broadway musical. The Chinns pitched the doc idea to Turner and her music executive husband, Erwin Bach, and then asked Lindsay and Martin, with whom they have worked at the production company Lightbox, if they’d be interested in helming it.

“Once Simon approached us seeing if we were willing to direct, our hesitation was just, first and foremost, are two men the right people to be Tina’s voice, to tell her story?” recalled Martin. “And the second was that we respected Tina immensely, but we weren’t necessarily fans. The latter was probably to our advantage because as we started diving in and learning more about her narrative, we were looking at it through the lens of storytelling and everything was a proper discovery.”

We respected Tina immensely, but we weren’t necessarily fans.

As for how they reconciled telling Turner’s story while both being men, the choice was ultimately up to Turner. “Over some time, spending time with her, I think we built a good rapport and trust with her so that our job was to be an empathetic conduit for her to filter her narrative through,” said Martin. The crew, Lindsay pointed out, hardly comprised a sausage party, with the likes of Diane Becker working as producer and Taryn Gould on the editing team.

Tina would ultimately take about two and a half years to complete. The directors’ first sit-down interview with Turner at her palatial estate in Zurich occurred in February 2019. They conducted two three-hour interviews over the course of two days. “Usually with these celebrity-based docs, there’s a contract in terms of how much time they’re going to give you. We weren’t supposed to get much more than that but to Tina’s credit, once she started dipping her toe into the process, I think she got a little bit excited,” said Martin who described Turner as “this healthy combination of unique energy, extremely warm, and extremely honest.”

“If she doesn’t like your shoes, she’s going to be like, ‘Why are you wearing those shoes?’” he added. “But in the most loving way, like, ‘I think you can do better.’”

“There’s a humbleness in her,” said Lindsay. “Don’t get me wrong, she’s still a star. It’s annoying when people say that celebrities are down to earth but I don’t know how else to describe it. She makes you feel very comfortable.”

They based their framework on Turner’s frequently stated fatigue regarding her narrative. Tina, then, is a biography that is as much about the events that happened as it is the act of sharing them. “There’s something to explore in her story, which we ultimately did in this kind of meta way like, ‘What does Tina think about the story of Tina Turner?,’” said Lindsay. “That was not only interesting in that world. We also thought it kind of said something more about media and the way that we define people as symbols and ideas. That bit of meat on the bone is what made us go, ‘This is an actual film.’”

What does Tina think about the story of Tina Turner?

But if we take Turner at her word, that she essentially dragged herself through the telling of her story to People and then to journalist Kurt Loder (who co-wrote I, Tina) and then suffered through the release of What’s Love Got to Do With It (at a press conference, shown in Tina via archival footage, she said she couldn’t stomach sitting through it), isn’t the same thing happening once again? Aren’t Lindsay and Martin guilty of putting Turner through more of the hell that she spends so much of the doc decrying?

“That’s a very weird line to walk: Are we doing the same thing? I know we feel comfortable with the way we worked with her to make sure we weren’t doing the same thing in our process with her,” said Lindsay. “Honestly, it became too much to be able to articulate exactly and it’s just like, okay, I guess that’s the weird contradiction in this film. We were very anxious about showing Tina the film, and we even talked about if we shouldn’t show her certain parts. Ultimately she said, ‘No I want to see everything.’ She really liked the film. She told us it was accurate and that she felt it was the truth of her experience. But she also said that it wasn’t as hard for her to watch as she thought it was going to be. That speaks at least in some ways to what she says at the end: There is an acceptance to some of this.”

Toward the end of the filming of the doc, it became clear that it might be Turner’s final goodbye to the public. Granted, she’s said goodbye before—her 1990 Foreign Affair trek was subtitled The Farewell Tour. She’d go on to launch four more, concluding with 2008-9’s Tina!: 50th Anniversary Tour. But at 81, Turner seems more over it than ever. In footage of her attending the premiere of her Broadway show, she declares herself ready to bid the definitive adieu.

To be the persona of Tina Turner—to be the symbol of Tina Turner—is really exhausting to her.

“It was palpable and she was very vocal about her hesitation to attend the musical,” said Martin. “She really deeply appreciates the celebration of her life, but to be the persona of Tina Turner—to be the symbol of Tina Turner—is really exhausting to her. The way she was expressing herself en route to the premiere, it started to get in our brains that even though we’ve taken this very particular POV in the film, it will be a little bit closer to her last word, possibly. Having said that, I wouldn’t be surprised if in five years from now, Tina comes out with another album. That’s Tina Turner.”

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