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It’s not all about the music, Ms Turner: Tina film review | Berlin 2021

We’ve had the books, the biopic, the musical and now the documentary: legendary performer Tina Turner is attempting to set the record straight and close the door on her horrific first marriage with Ike Turner. Again

The theme for International Women’s Day 2021 is Choose To Challenge. In these tumultuous times, we can all choose to challenge and call out bias, injustice and inequality, yet many do not. Sexism and male privilege should be a thing of the past and yet in the 2020s those of us who are male may have certain automatic, unearned privileges by virtue of our gender.

We can also choose to seek out and celebrate women’s achievements in history. They could be your mother, sister, aunt, friend or neighbour. They could be someone you’ve never even met yet feel an affinity towards based on the struggles and challenges they have experienced and hopefully overcome.

So it’s a case of fortuitous timing — or perhaps an entirely uncoincidental one — that a new docufilm about Tina Turner, the original soul survivor, premiered at the Berlin Film Festival just a few days ago. Tina is billed as the final chapter in the phenomenal tale of the legendary artist’s dogged endurance in the face of endless adversity, familiar challenges that included racism, sexism, domestic abuse, violence and, later, ageism.

Daniel Lindsay and TJ Martin, the Oscar-winning film-makers behind this documentary, focus on all aspects of the singer’s story, from childhood to early success to liberation from Ike to worldwide fame and eventual retirement to Zurich, having renounced her US citizenship and became a Swiss national in 2013.

Having said that, there is one thing that’s almost used as a mere device to push the narrative along, and that’s the music: you know, the thing that actually gave her fame and fortune, an astonishing career that was ultimately the catalyst for meeting both of the men who would go on to become her husbands. That the executive producer is Mr Erwin Bach, the second of those Mr Turners, adds to the sense that it’s about the woman he married rather than the rock legend that pulled of the most remarkable comeback in musical history, the first woman to fill football stadiums. And how.

Yet there was another, more troubling side to her success, which the film details in often horrific detail, as Tina relives the famous escape from brutally controlling first husband Ike Turner and her slow rise to stardom as a solo superstar. It’s a celebration of a truly remarkable life, a victory for raw talent over poverty and abuse.

The directors work from two principal threads: one is a candid interview with Turner filmed at her Chateau Algonquin mansion in 2019; the other is a 1981 People magazine profile by then-music editor Carl Arrington, in which the singer went public for the first time about the trauma of her marriage.

I visited Zurich in 2019. You can make out Tina's house on the far left of the pic © SD Pafford 2021

But hang on a mo, haven’t we been here before? Though gripping, and moving and ultimately triumphant, the film is essentially the small screen version of the highly acclaimed West End show Tina: The Musical, which opened in London in 2017, and also “portrays Tina Turner’s famous escape from violent husband Ike and her rise to stardom as a solo performer.”

A memoir, My Love Story, was published to coincide with the play: “I wanted to tell the whole story, and get it right this time. I also wanted to make peace with my past, including Ike,” she told The New York Times about writing the book, referencing her previous one, I, Tina.

I, Tina, co-written with Rolling Stone’s Kurt Loder in 1986, was Turner’s first autobiography, and which was adapted into a screenplay by Kate Lanier to become What’s Love Got To Do With It, 1993’s big screen biopic that stared Angela Bassett in the role of Tina.

Both Ike and Tina assigned rights to Lanier and Disney for their lives to be dramatised in the film, though Tina wanted it as a matter of record that she had reservations about the project, not wanting to relive that living hell all over again. I did find it curious that she sold the book rights anyway though. 

I remember coming back from a screening of the film in London’s West End with friend Judi, and as we got home and mentioned what we’d been to see, our house mate piped up, “Why’s she doing this film? Does she need the money or something?”

It was an uncharitable remark but perhaps not a million miles from the truth. Renumeration not celebration then.

“I’ve been through fucking tons of heartbreak,” an emotional Turner is heard telling Loder in the documentary, her uncharacteristic expletive more forthcoming with the aid of a bottle. “I was living a life of death. And wish I walked I walked and I didn’t look back.”

It sounds voyeuristic considering the heaviness of the subject matter, but it’s an eavesdropper’s delight to listen to the audio recordings of the conversations between the co-authors, taped in a Munich hotel suite in April 1985 as preparation for their book. But as we learn in new filmed sequences with both of them, Tina insists her main motivation for telling and selling her story was to put to bed the stories of Ike’s cruelty once and for all. Dish the dirt and move on. 

Except closure ain’t what it used to be.

That it opens with Ask Me How I Feel*, from 1989’s Foreign Affair album, tells you everything you need to know about the through line of the documentary. This is a film that lays bare how she felt and how she feels about the key relationships in her life, from her threadbare cotton-picking  upbringing as Anna Mae Bullock in Nutbush, to her deserved happiness in a Swiss lakeside chateau. Her father Floyd barely registers except as the antagonist in an abusive relationship with Tina’s mother Zelma, who soon fled the family home.

Zelma Bullock is depicted as cold and unfeeling — indeed, at one point Tina actually says her mother “loved my success but not me.”

The stretch of the Highway TN 19 between Nutbush and Brownsville has been officially renamed Tina Turner Highway. © SD Pafford 2016

Curiously, the programme then cuts to archive footage of an interview Zelma gave to the BBC’s comprehensive celebration of Tina’s career, The Girl From Nutbush back in 1992. When asked about how her daughter coped under Ike’s iron fist, she gives a measured, dignified response, though as the camera closes in you can see she’s welling up with tears.

Not so inhuman after all then?

For the record, another sequence from the Beeb’s special not used in the new documentary was a slightly telling assessment of Tina’s career was from a man who played a not insignificant part in Capitol Records resuscitating the great lady’s career in 1983. His name is David Bowie and he’s choosing his words very carefully:

“Oh, I’m not so sure how much help I was, but I certainly was enthusiastic about her when she went on her own. Because I thought she was great. Well, she is great. She is… she is great. I think people go and see her, not for the songs necessarily, they go and see her for what she represents. I think the baggage of her past travels with her, and they’re going to see somebody who like a phoenix from the ashes has risen. And that’s not altogether a bad thing, she’s certainly been through far worse than many of us have been through and she’s been able to survive it.”

Me being me, I’ve analysed this and the Dame’s other contributions to the programme so many times over the years, and it’s not exactly a privilege to come up with the same conclusion every time. Bowie, then in his off-his-rocker Tin Machine period but always with a penchant for the arty and the avant garde, was essentially saying that Tina Turner was a great singer and a very sexy performer who was better than her records.

In 2021, you could be forgiven for thinking the documentary makers were singing from the same hymn sheet.

Not only has David Bowie been excised from Tina history, but so have Heaven 17. They’re the English electronic combo producers of Let’s Stay Together, the record that brought her back to the charts, even if the film would prefer you to think the renaissance started with What’s Love Got To Do With It. In fact, the latter hit and River Deep – Mountain High are really the only records that even get discussed. 

Did Tina really sing that Bond theme? Star in Mad Max? Perform at Live Aid? None of these major achievements are covered, and, even more astonishingly, neither is Nutbush City Limits. I mean, it’s only Tina’s only self-penned hit after all. You know, the one about her Tennessee upbringing and all that. Tsk. 

The 'church house' in Nutbush in 2016 © SD Pafford, 2016

On the plus side, there is a smorgasbord of fascinating home movies and rehearsal footage. The recent death of Tina’s eldest son Craig isn’t discussed, though he does provide a slightly uncomfortable testimony in archive footage, reflecting on how much of a workhorse career made her somewhat of an absent mother: “She was gone a lot of the time; eight months on the road, four months back,” and when she was at home Tina was “very very strict.”

To wrap up, the first hour of this movie is all about Ike & Tina, and the second hour is all about how she’s annoyed people still asked her about Ike after she’d gone solo, forcing the necessity of several autobiographical projects, of which this is the latest and almost certainly the last.

It’s moving, it’s humbling and it’s upsetting. No matter how many times Turner’s story has been told, and from however many different angles, it remains a riveting life. It’s genuinely legitimately inspirational. Given the ageism of the pop music industry, just the fact that she reinvented herself as a global superstar at 45 when many had written her off as a ’70s cabaret relic out to pasture in Vegas is extraordinary. And though I’d prefer another record to another confessional I’ll more than settle for seeing the old gal happy in her retirement. No one deserves it more. She truly was simply the best female performer I ever did see. God bless you ma’am.

Steve Pafford

*The footage of Ask Me How I Feel is taken from a long deleted 1990 video release of Tina live in Barcelona, though that wasn’t its title. I remember popping in to John Menzies in Queensway, the high street of Bletchley to see if they had it in stock. Only to find an old Schoo chum of mine working the till. I asked for the VHS and she, for it was Nicky McKay, shouted full pelt across the store to her colleague, “Do Ya Want Some Action? He’s after it.” Well, quite. What’s the recipe?

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