The HBO documentary Tina gives the singer the last say on a life that was, for long periods, out of her own hands.
Turner did with that sleepy song what she always did with rock and roll as a genre: claim it. When the music industry didn’t open its doors to her, or to Black women more broadly, she found a window to climb through—or kicked the door down altogether. Just look at what she did for Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary” in 1971. “Turner upped the intensity of [John] Fogerty’s country-rock anthem by a factor of 10,” the author Jason Heller recently wrote. “It’s Turner’s soulful ecstasy that sells it.” The song may have helped liberate Tina, as Heller notes, but her cover also pushed the genre forward.
The documentary, from Oscar winners Daniel Lindsay and T. J. Martin, premiering today, isn’t a neat story of one woman’s triumph against the odds. Instead, it follows the artist’s constant battles for control of her life, career, and legacy. Through 2019 interviews with Turner at her home in Zurich, as well as archival footage, the film chronicles her fight for personal and creative autonomy. “Look what I have done in this lifetime, with this body,” she says at one point, her voice sounding at once triumphant and incredulous. The gravity of that contradiction hangs over Tina, which reminds its viewers not just of the star’s talent but of all the turns at which that vibrance was nearly cut off from the world altogether.
The struggle of navigating public life as a high-profile Black woman musician has been explored in other recent works: The December documentary Billie and the February biopic The United States vs. Billie Holiday both track the blues singer’s contentious relationship with the media and the music industry. And like those films, past documentaries and biopics about Whitney Houston and Nina Simone, in addition to forthcoming works about Aretha Franklin, all lack an element that differentiates Tina: the subject’s voice. In works of biographical entertainment, the impulse for an artist to control their own narrative can lead to hagiographies that strip their subjects of unflattering histories. But, like the biopic and musical before it, Tina doesn’t avoid the darker chapters of the star’s life. Framed as Turner’s farewell to public life, the documentary instead allows her to define her story in its totality, in part by revisiting—and in some cases rewriting—the eras in which others wrote it for her.
Tina homes in on two related struggles: Turner’s insistence on making it as a rock musician and her commitment to owning, and reinventing, her name. Born Anna Mae Bullock in Nutbush, Tennessee, Tina Turner wasn’t destined to perform for crowds of more than 100,000 people around the world. The first of Tina’s two acts introduces her early years and the subsequent move to Missouri, where she met the locally famous musician Ike Turner. It was Ike who first called her “Tina,” a name that he chose partly for its closeness to “Sheena,” the name of a racy, jungle-dwelling comic-book character. By attaching his own last name to Tina when they became a musical duo in 1960, and then marrying the young singer in 1962, Ike hoped to keep her from abandoning him after they found success, she explains. “I was truly a friend to Ike, and I had promised to help him,” Tina says of their embattled marriage and creative partnership. “So I was still trying to help him get a hit record.”
Without glossing over the wrenching details of Ike’s physical and emotional abuse (the late singer admitted to hitting Tina, but claimed that the abuse allegations are exaggerated), the documentary highlights the moments when Tina got some respite. Recording with the producer Phil Spector in 1966, she was able to sing without Ike controlling her arrangements only because Spector had paid him not to be present. “That was a freedom I didn’t have,” Tina says of singing with boundless might over the monumental orchestration of “River Deep – Mountain High.” “You’re like a bird that gets out of a cage.” The song didn’t become a hit in the United States—unlike in the U.K.—but it planted the seeds for Tina’s genre-defying musical repertoire separate from Ike.
In the film, Turner explains why she doesn’t consider Private Dancer, the first commercial success she achieved following her divorce from Ike, a comeback record: “Tina had never arrived,” she says. “It was Tina’s debut for the first time. This was my first album.” Most often, she speaks about the immense toll of wresting her identity back from Ike—and from the subsequent media attention. Speaking about her 1978 divorce proceedings, for example, a younger Tina corrects a journalist who comments that Ike wanted to own all of the duo’s artistic work. “No, he wanted to own me,” she says.
It’s no wonder, then, that the 1986 autobiography in which Turner detailed their relationship was titled I, Tina. The journalist Kurt Loder, with whom she wrote the book, appears in the new documentary, as does Katori Hall, who co-wrote the 2019 Broadway musical about the singer’s life, also titled Tina. Hall notes that the musician’s decision to claim her name in court during a divorce in which she got nothing else was its own rebellion against Ike: “You gave me this name,” she imagines Tina thinking then. “But watch what I build with it.” There’s no shortage of works that detail or recreate the abuses the singer has suffered. But Tina, importantly, also doesn’t lose sight of how she’s remade herself after her traumas with rigor and acumen.
The constant media coverage of Ike’s alleged abuse was not the only persistent tedium the singer faced. Plenty of the documentary’s second act focuses on the barriers Tina encountered in trying to establish herself, explicitly, as a rock artist. She speaks candidly about the calculated choices she made to push back against an industry that saw her as too Black to make “white” music, listeners who suggested that she was straying from her roots, and rock critics who accused her of toying recklessly with the genre. She wonders aloud how listeners would have responded to her music if it had been released without her face—without any indication of the artist’s race—on the marketing materials. “My dream was to be the first Black rock-and-roll singer to pack places like the [Rolling] Stones,” she muses.
Undoubtedly, many of the objections to Tina’s ascent were rooted in racist perceptions of who could lay claim to rock music. One particularly revelatory moment in the documentary quotes the late John Carter, the Capitol Records executive who signed Tina as a solo artist, remembering the racist, vitriolic response of a label co-worker at the time. But other industry players recognized that her artistry pointed clearly to the genre’s Black origins. Though many of the most celebrated rock stars have been white men, its earliest pioneers were Black artists such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a multi-instrumentalist whose early-20th-century recordings brought the ecstatic expression of Black southern gospel to secular music. Along with Black radio stations, the Black church shaped the musical stylings of white rockers such as Elvis Presley. As the cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon writes in Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll, “Turner was arguably the genuine article, someone who had the vocal sound that white rock vocalists from Mick Jagger to Janis Joplin to Robert Plant to John Fogerty were trying to achieve. She had the wrenching strain, the effortless rasp, the wails, volume, and passion, as well as the ability to somehow sound both hot and cool.”
The HBO film is certainly a celebratory work, but it doesn’t feel like a sterile product of image management. In capturing the 81-year-old singer’s reflections while she is still alive to give them, Tina offers an intimate examination of what it means for any artist—and especially a Black woman whose music has challenged the narrow confines of genre—to create her own mythos. It lets viewers, even those familiar with the arc of her career, appreciate the monumental work it took for Tina to make rock her own.