Review: Dazzling performance clips and a staggering story drive 'Tina'

HBO's Tina Turner doc comes to life with live performance footage of the legendary performer

Tom Long
Special to The Detroit News

It would be pretty hard to make a bad documentary about Tina Turner, being as how any such documentary would have to include footage of her performing. To call her stage presence explosive is an understatement.

“Tina” is nowhere close to a bad documentary and it does indeed contain some amazing performances from her long career. And many are full performances, not just worn clips of “Proud Mary” from a talk show, but big stadium showcases. As interesting as the rest of the film may be, nothing can top the raw, ferocious fire of Tina Turner strutting, jiggling madly and howling on stage.

Tina Turner is the subject of HBO's "Tina."

Born in 1939 to sharecroppers in Tennessee, Turner was abandoned by both her mother and father. She grew up singing in church, but when she was in her teens she’d hang out at a club where the rock pioneer Ike Turner was playing. Eventually he let her sing for him. Her days picking cotton were over.

Ike liked the character Sheena of the Jungle, so Anna Mae Bullock became Tina. From the late '50s through the '70s the Ike and Tina Turner Revue played clubs and concert halls, TV shows, big stages and small, two shows a day, relentlessly. They had minor hits here and there but were mainly known as a sensational live band.

Ike ruled with an iron hand, both on stage and at home, where he beat Tina regularly. Finally, in the late '70s, she left him. He got everything in the divorce except her name and stage presence.

As it turned out that was all she needed. But things were dicey for a while. Tina was near 40 at the time she left Ike and she’d never been on her own. She was on the verge of becoming a Vegas lounge act before hooking up with the right manager and record label. She then turned an insipid pop song, “What’s Love Got To Do With It,” into an anthem and herself into the Queen of Rock.

She also came forth in a People magazine interview about the domestic abuse she’d suffered with Ike, apparently hoping to air the problem and let it go. That story became the hit movie “What’s Love Got To Do With It,” and to her dismay Tina became a reluctant poster child for battered women. The story came to define her in many eyes, a fact she clearly hates.

This is an authorized documentary and Tina Turner, now 81 and living in Switzerland, is interviewed extensively. But for the most part she’s just commenting on the chronological progression of her life and career. 

There’s no deep digging on how a woman with such monstrous confidence and charisma on stage could be cowering in domestic life, no juxtaposition of how a singer of such sensuality could sing love songs with such ferocity while her own life was devoid of love for so many years. Instead this is a straight-up celebration.

And there is a great deal to celebrate, most especially the remarkable power and enthusiasm she had on stage. That is where Tina Turner seemed most herself, and that is where “Tina” shines brightest.  As it should. 



8 p.m. Saturday


Tom Long is a longtime contributor to The Detroit News.