Sunday 28 March 2021

When the heartache is over: "Tina"

Unlike the subjects of those other recent one-named documentaries about female singers with turbulent private lives (Amy, Billie, Whitney), Tina Turner is still with us, which immediately lends this weekend's Tina a different bearing. Directors Daniel Lindsay and TJ Martin (who oversaw the Oscar-winning Undefeated and the excellent L.A. 92) have tracked down Turner to a sparsely furnished antechamber in Zurich, looking as regal as ever as she nudges into her eighties. Having become Switzerland's most famous resident (and second most unlikely resident, after Lee "Scratch" Perry) upon her remarriage to the German music executive Erwin Bach in 2013, she now finds herself surrounded by fresh mountain air, Toblerone, tax breaks and, most crucially of all, peace - a peace that must provide some respite after many long decades of hollering her lungs out or having others holler at her. The villain of this story, Turner's controlling-abusive first husband Ike - who seized upon the young Annie Mae Bullock, having seen in her a goldmine - is dead some years now, so the film has the advantage of addressing the couple's violent ups and downs without fear of defamation lawsuits; more critically, the audience is notionally better primed, post-#MeToo, in the language and psychology of any such relationships. When the singer follows up a graphic description of what Ike did to her in the bedroom with the somehow even more candid admission that she started to feel sorry for her abuser, we know exactly that Stockholm Syndrome that must have taken effect; what might well have seemed beyond-the-pale shocking in the 1981 People interview where Turner first addressed her past has been revealed over recent years as a lamentable commonplace. Lindsay and Martin leave us in no doubt as to the deep trouble their subject was in: at one early point in the couple's marriage, Tina found herself liberated by Phil Spector, of all the white knights, so as to record "River Deep, Mountain High". (A further historical wrinkle, at once revealing and disturbing: Spector paid off the troublesome Ike to stay away from his studio. More and more, the history of the entertainment business looks like that of controlling men trading younger women like cattle or slaves.)

The hallmarks of the blue-chip modern music doc are present and correct: a subject telling their story in their own words; copious archive footage, which here extends to Super-8 from the family archives (Turner classic movies, you might call them); sporadic inserts of cassette spools revolving, reassuring the viewer as to the film's meticulous sourcing. Even the font used for the chapter headings is classy. Narratively, however, everything's flipped. The tough stuff (the violence, the rape, the suicide attempt) is frontloaded, something the singer had to get through and walk away from. What potentially makes Tina more than bog-standard biography - not to mention a vast improvement on the crudeness of 1993's Hollywood biopic What's Love Got to Do With It, which Lindsay and Martin excerpt in passing, its dialogue sounding even more on-the-nose amid their judicious nuance - is a stretch wherein Turner talks us through the practicalities of walking away from someone who would hold you in an iron fist: I can see this being used in seminars on domestic abuse, and being picked up as a power source by anybody who finds themselves in a similar quandary. The second half is a comparative breeze: Tina goes solo, becomes ever more confident and successful, finds true love, and struts away from the music biz before it had chance to discard or destroy her. No, Beyoncé, you want to say: this is a survivor. In the positively cathartic live footage, we watch a woman's entire body language change over time. In the Ike years, Tina dances like a puppet on a string, the result of hours of meticulous choreography. (You dread to think what would have happened if she put a foot out of line: even facing the public, Tina seems to tighten up whenever the guitar-toting Ike approaches the microphone.) During her 1980s return, by contrast, the stage is entirely hers - and, boy, did she claim it. That's why Lindsay and Martin open with a clip from one of those arena-filling gigs that clinched her superstardom: it's acknowledgement that OK, the next hour will require wall-to-wall trigger warnings, but there's a reward if you stay the course - which also happens to be Tina's reward for having walked away.

The more time the film affords us to reflect upon this story, the more remarkable the story becomes. She was already forty when she set out on that comeback, at a time when the American music industry was still largely segregated; and - in a moment of soaring ambition - she apparently told her manager she wanted to sell out those stadia the Rolling Stones were selling out, meaning she was reclaiming a space previously occupied by white blokes repackaging Black riffs and licks for their own ends. (Look closely at the crowds in Tina's gig footage: they're at least 75% Caucasian.) And while the hits inevitably gain from being rewashed in Dolby surround, she achieved all this with a songbook that contains very few entries you could point to as out-and-out classics, "River Deep" aside. What Turner took from her early years on the road was an idea of how to put on a show, both personally (making over those bruises, embodying a hard-won independence people were drawn towards) and professionally, which is why she segued so seamlessly into the light entertainment of the Seventies and Eighties. From Ike, she took her stage name and the notion of a "revue", making fun, raucous, sexy what had been rigid and regimented under the previous regime. (A post-divorce residency in Las Vegas seems to have been central to this.) The film shows her loosening up, unclenching: those sweat-drenched, heavily aerobicised stage performances (in heels!) were every bit the equal of Jane Fonda in those exercise tapes with which Tina Turner: Rio '88 shared VHS cabinet space. Two minor quibbles: Lindsay and Martin do Bucks Fizz (who recorded an early version of "What's Love Got to Do With It") slightly dirty, although theirs might well seem a plasticky kind of pop in the context of a story such as this; and the playout number is an eyeroller, though fans won't mind. Mostly, it's a music doc with a palpable emotional charge, in large part because it sets us to wondering what the ingenue being battered in a middle-of-nowhere motel room would make of the absolute queen holding 186,000 Brazilians spellbound with an Ann Peebles cover. Tina Turner made it the hard way; if anyone now deserves a sitdown in a quiet room with a Toblerone and a tax break, she does.

Tina screens on Sky Documentaries at 9pm tonight and Good Friday; it's also now available to stream via NOW TV.

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