When Tina Turner’s fifth album, “Private Dancer,” shimmied up the Billboard chart in 1984, it was widely hailed as her comeback effort. But the singer disagrees with that assessment.
“I don’t consider it a comeback album. Tina had never arrived,” Turner says in a new HBO documentary about her life and career. “It was Tina’s debut.”
That’s a powerful statement from the musical icon, who famously kept the stage name she was given by her abusive ex-husband, Ike Turner, following their 1978 divorce. “Tina” reminds us that her name was about the only thing Turner wanted to keep from her first marriage; it was the news media that continued to make Ike Turner and his abuse a prominent focus of interviews about the singer and her work.
“Tina,” directed by Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin, isn’t as revelatory as other recent celebrity documentaries — its strength lies in context, which the filmmakers provide through archival footage and contemporary interviews with Turner; her second husband, Erwin Bach; journalists and a few friends, including Oprah Winfrey.
Here are the biggest takeaways from the nearly two-hour film.
Turner never aspired to be a star
The documentary recalls Turner’s fateful trip to see Ike Turner’s band play in St. Louis in the late ’50s. She asked that night if she could join him onstage, but Ike refused because “he didn’t believe I could sing,” Turner recalls in audio from a 1981 interview with People magazine. Turner continued to show up to the band’s gigs, and eventually Ike relented. Her voice, full-bodied and husky, blew him away.
At just 17, Turner began singing with the band every weekend. “I was young, naive — just a country girl,” Turner recalls in a contemporary interview. “And everything just opened up to me.”
Initially, as Turner recalled in her People interview, their relationship was based in “a family love.” But when the duo landed their first hit record, “A Fool in Love,” in 1960, Ike rebranded his band as the Ike & Tina Turner Revue — and decided that Tina should be his wife.
“She really was young. She had no ambition to be a superstar,” recalls Jimmy Thomas, who sang background vocals for the revue. “But when she sang, she just had it. And Ike exploited it.”
In her interview with People, Turner noted that Ike — who had gone uncredited on “Rocket 88,” the pioneering rock-and-roll record he recorded with his band in 1951 — had deep-seated insecurities about being left behind by acts that he’d helped to find fame.
Turner was pregnant with her and Ike’s son, Ronnie, when she disagreed with travel arrangements Ike had planned for the band.
He responded by beating her with a shoe stretcher, Turner said in her People interview. His abuse continued until she left him in 1976. “Maybe I was brainwashed. I was afraid of him, and I cared what happened to him. And I knew that if I left, there was no one to sing,” Turner says in the audio.
Buddhism gave Turner the strength and resolve to leave Ike following years of abuse
As Turner’s star rose, Phil Spector, then an influential record producer, asked to work with Turner — and only Turner. Though their first collaboration, the 1966 single, “River Deep — Mountain High,” was considered a commercial flop (in the United States at least), Turner got a taste of freedom working with Spector, who encouraged her to branch out from beyond how she typically performed with Ike. (Though, Ike is credited on the song as part of a deal with Spector.)
“It was so big, and my voice sounded so different standing on top of all that music,” Turner says of the song.
At this point, Turner says she no longer loved Ike. But she continued to work with him out of loyalty, and was determined to help him get a hit record. She achieved that with the duo’s Grammy-winning cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary” in 1971, though the song only amplified the pressure for success. Ike’s abuse, meanwhile, intensified.
Turner credits her introduction to Buddhism with helping her become confident enough to leave Ike. She reached her limit in 1976 when he struck her on the way to a Dallas airport. The incident informed a memorable scene in the 1993 film “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” which starred Angela Bassett as Turner. In the scene, Tina fights back after Ike strikes her; in real-life, Turner did the same, but after arriving at the hotel bloodied and swollen, she massaged Ike’s head so he would fall asleep.
It was then that Turner made a desperate escape, across a freeway, to a nearby hotel. “I grabbed my little hand luggage and I walked,” Turner recalls in her People interview. “I was afraid, though.”
Turner was forced to relive her trauma in interviews for decades
“Tina” recalls Turner’s packed work schedule following her divorce from Ike, in which she says she “got nothing” except for her name. “That’s when I realized I could use Tina to become a business,” Turner recalls.
The next few years were filled with performances in Las Vegas and on TV specials in a bid to recoup the money she lost in the divorce fallout, which included canceled gigs. Turner eventually recruited Roger Davies to be her manager, leading to higher profile gigs — even as she encountered vile racism within the music industry — and the new sound that marked a departure from her work with Ike.
Turner’s interview with People music editor Carl Arrington ran in the magazine’s Dec. 7, 1981, issue, and marked the singer’s first public comments on her ex-husband’s abuse. But even after Turner reached the height of her solo career with the Grammy-winning “Private Dancer” (followed by a role in the 1985 film “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome”) the singer was constantly asked about Ike and their relationship.
Turner attempted to put those discussions to rest with her 1986 autobiography “I, Tina,” which she co-wrote with Kurt Loder. But the effect was largely the opposite, partially because other women were so inspired by her coming forward.
“That story reached so many people who felt like they had to kind of keep their secrets locked away deep down,” Katori Hall, the playwright who brought Turner’s story to Broadway, says. “It’s like a Pandora’s box.”
Turner’s painful past isn’t limited to the domestic violence she survived
“Tina” is mostly devoted to the singer’s career, but it does briefly discuss her childhood in Nutbush, Tenn., where her family picked cotton and where she witnessed her father’s violence against her mother. Eventually, both of her parents abandoned the family altogether.
“I’m a girl from a cotton field that pulled myself above what was not taught to me,” she says in an archival interview with Loder.
“I have not received love almost ever in my life. I did not have it with my mother and my father from the beginning of birth, and I survived,” she tells him. “Why did I get so far without love … I have had not one love affair that was genuine and sustained itself. Not one.”
Turner tells Loder, pounding her fist on the table for emphasis, that she’s experienced “tons of heartbreak.”
“I’ve analyzed it. I’ve said, ‘What’s wrong with me?’” Turner says. “I’ve looked in the mirror with myself stripped of makeup and without hair. Why can’t someone see the beauty in the woman … I am?”
Turner is ready to leave public life
The documentary’s final act introduces Turner’s husband, Erwin Bach, and their sprawling estate in Zurich. “I really needed love. I just needed to love a person,” Turner says, recalling their first meeting when the former record executive picked her up from Düsseldorf Airport in Germany.
“It’s love. It’s something we both have for each other,” says Bach, whom Turner married in 2013. “I always refer to it as an electrical charge.”
As for her ex-husband, who died in 2007, Turner says she has forgiven him. “Forgiving means not to hold on,” she says. “You let it go.”
“I had an abusive life. There’s no other way to tell the story,” she adds. “It’s a reality. It’s a truth.”
The documentary fittingly ends with footage of Turner attending the premiere of Hall’s musical, where she received a standing ovation. The documentary and the play, Bach says, “is a closure.” As Turner eyes her future away from public life, she reflects on the most graceful way to do it.
“Some people say that the life that I lived and the performances that I gave, the appreciation is lasting with the people and I should be proud of that,” she says. “I am. But when do you stop being proud? How do you bow out slowly?”