Tina Turner, the very essence of rock and roll, distilled into its purest form and channeled with the organic dynamism that can only be innately preset, not learned. She taught Mick Jagger how to dance, helping him transition from the meek, reserved blues singer in such shows as the Stones’ 1966 Ed Sullivan appearance to, just months later, the imitable stage presence, jettisoning the microphone stand for his signature strut and swagger in their next Ed Sullivan Show appearance, in 1967.
“No, no music at all,” she would reply, when prodded by reporters and critics about ever having studied music. “Everything is natural for me; I’m a performer.”
Turner didn’t just teach Mick how to strut, she covered his songs with such natural fineness that left many unsure whether her records were covers at all. Just listen to Turner performing “Honky Tonk Women,” in 1971. She flips the narrative, delivering the story from her perspective, “I met a gin-soaked barroom man in Memphis,” she crooned.
What she lacked as a songwriter, Tina more than made up for with her ability to take her favorite songs and make them entirely her own. Her cover of The Beatles’, “Help,” infuses the upbeat mid-60s rockabilly number with her earliest musical influences, which she described saying, “My roots are black gospel, blues, and BB King’s music was our radio during that time,” turning the song into a downtempo gospel ballad.
And it wasn’t only her favorite songs that Tina could interpret and perform better than their originals. In the early 80s she was suggested the now ubiquitous “What’s Love Got to Do with It,” by producer and songwriter, Terry Britten. Albeit initially apprehensive at tackling a pure pop song — a seemingly left turn on her trajectory towards the apogee of rock and roll — Tina used her untamable voice to remold its twee lyrics (“You must understand, though the touch of your hand / Makes my pulse react”) into a bona fide rock song.
This organic musicality that, in 1971, would land Tina Turner her best-selling single, “Proud Mary.” Speeding up the tempo on John Fogerty’s classic Mississippi swamp tune, Turner delivered the languid riverboat anthem, “rolling on a river,” with such smooth aplomb that would have nobody wonder the harrowing abuse she was enduring in the background, off-stage at the hands of her ostensible co-star and husband, Ike Turner.
It was Tina Turner’s struggle to endure and sustain her on-stage composure in the throes of this abusive relationship with her Svengali husband that underpins HBO’s newest rockumentary, titled Tina.
Directed by Dan Lindsey and T. J. Martin, Tina weaves an entertaining collage of old photographs, arrival footage, musical performances, as well as intimate interviews with Tina’s close friends and family to tell the tale of one of rock and roll’s first legendary performers.
When Tina Turner, born Anna Mae Bullock, first moved to St. Louis in 1957 to pursue a career in singing, she wasn’t drawn to the lavish and ostentatious lifestyle associated with rock stars. She was leaving behind a childhood of parental abandonment and destitution, hankering for nothing more than to express herself; hungering for an audience to thrill.
In the grimy, smoke-filled clubs of St. Louis, Tina was taking on a world she knew little about. “I was young and naïve,” she conceded in retrospect. Tina’s glaring innocence and youth were quickly exploited by rock pioneer, Ike Turner. Ike recognized Tina’s remarkable talent, taking her under his wing, christening her with the stage name, Tina, and grooming her into a veritable hitmaker for his newly conceived duo: Ike and Tina Turner.
It wasn’t until her 1981 interview with People Magazine that the harrowing inner workings of Ike and Tina’s wedding were divulged to the public. As the documentary explains, this was an entirely different era than the present; Tina didn’t have the vast online social network afforded to stars today through the internet. The only way to reach a vast audience was through the medium of print journalism, which meant sitting down with a publication and pouring your heart onto glossy ink-filled pages with the hopes that they would line enough magazine stands to make your voice heard.
As Tina described to People Magazine and in subsequent interviews, at the time, she was in her early 20s, married to Ike, and brainwashed, caught up in guilt and fear. “The two worst qualities for a young girl to be caught up in.”
A highlight of the HBO documentary is its presentation of not only the pain Tina experienced at the hands of her husband, but the repeated trauma upon retelling her story and reliving the abuse, interview after interview. Thinking she could disclose her past to People Magazine in 1981 and be forever rid of it, she was mistaken. The story would pervade her persona; it would drag behind her like a ball and chain, becoming an effigy of inquiry at every subsequent interview.
Much like her marital life, Tina Turner’s path to professional stardom meandered through hardship. Despite the dogged abuse, Tina fought though the tribulations. Through exhausting touring schedules, she would be working as many as 4 shows a night, even singing on the tour bus between shows.
Her first shot at taking off as a solo performer came by way of Phil Spector, one of the biggest names in music production of the era. In 1966 Spector tore Turner from her husband’s grasp, giving her the freedom to unleash her vocal prowess, singing the melody as she saw fit — a creative freedom she was never afforded under Ike’s tutelage.
The resulting record, River Deep — Mountain High, was considered by Spector himself to be his finest work. But despite its meager successes in Europe (climbing to number 27), the record was a flop in America.
As Ike Turner explained in the documentary, “Like any black artist in America to do any tune it has to go top 10 on the R&B charts before a top artist station will touch it. And “River Deep” was not a black record. So it wouldn’t make the top 10 on the R&B charts and so therefore the top 40 radio stations wouldn’t play it. When we’re in England, they listen to the record and if the record is an R&B record, if it’s a rhythm and blues driven record and if it’s pop it’s pop, so it got played over there, it never got played in America. Black jockey said it’s too white, white jockey said it’s too black.”
Though HBO’s documentary doesn’t capture every highlight in Tina Turner’s dynamic career, it can hardly be faulted for it. With a performer this legendary, one is always left hungry for more; yet another encore. Such great performances as Turner’s 1971 cover of The Beatles “Come Together,” which oozes with more sex appeal than the entire Playboy Mansion, were unfortunate omissions. While the first half of Tina focuses on her early career with Ike, the latter rushes through her rise through the 80s.
For Tina Turner, her 1984 record, Private Dancer was her last chance to realize her grand dreams of stardom. Having left her estranged husband Ike, Tina emerged from the ashes of their odious marriage with nothing more than the legal rights to her stage name, Tina. Her two subsequent solo records failed to chart, losing her a record contract. It was only due to the unnerving faith of Capitol Records representative John Carter, as the documentary explained, that Turner had a final fleeting shot at launching her solo career.
Despite the odds, in 1984, Tina Turner, as a mother of 4, at the ripe age of 45 had her first number one record. Unwilling to rest on her laurels just yet, Turner proceeded to embark on a 5-leg tour, playing over 180 shows in under a year.
HBO’s Tina is an intimate and candid look at an icon who endured through hardship. Despite bleak beginnings and an abusive marriage, she raised four children, and, for a period, became the biggest star in music.
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