Stream It Or Skip It: ‘Tina’ on HBO Max, A Gripping Doc That Tells The True Story Of An American Icon and Inspiration

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In the wake of the recent, pretty wonderful look at The Bee Gees, HBO Max keeps its prestige music doc streak alive with Tina, an engrossing, visually compelling run through the life and work of rock music icon Tina Turner.

TINA: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?

The Gist: With its numerous telling passages, rich imagery, and remarkable candor, this is the definitive document of one of rock music’s greatest performers. Once again, and perhaps for the last time, Tina explains exactly what love had to do with it. Told in five parts — “Ike & Tina,” “Family,” “Comeback,” “The Story,” and, simply, “Love,” — Tina traces the unlikely arc of its subject’s life, from 1957 St. Louis, Missouri, where Ann Bullock first met and began singing with guitarist and bandleader Ike Turner, to the forging of “Tina Turner” in the flames of rock ‘n’ roll, through the raw emotion and strife of divorce and hard-bitten career rebirth, and finally to super stardom and personal redemption. As the media presentation of music evolved over the six decades of Turner’s career, there’s a wealth of performance footage for Tina to draw on, and the doc is often at its best when it just lets the music play. High-spirited boogying on 1960’s music programs, invigorating live runs through career-making work like Ike and Tina’s 1971 take on “Proud Mary,” and the outsized strut and glitz of the Private Dancer era, when Turner’s career skyrocketed — it’s all here, and presented with an instinct for the defining visual elements of each era. (Tina was directed by Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin, the team whose 2011 high school football doc Undefeated took home an Oscar.) Turner’s story is one that’s been told before, in interviews, in biopics, in her own autobiography. But this Tina still feels like the final word.

That it includes the full participation of the woman herself of course lends Tina its bona fides. Through contemporary interviews, her 1981 sit-down with People (“Tina Turner, the woman who taught Mick Jagger to dance, is on the prowl again…”), and recordings of her sessions with author Kurt Loder for the I, Tina book, a portrait emerges of a woman who survived the physical scars and profound adversity of a torturous marriage to stand on her own as both a performer and a person, and who finally found the love and dignity that she’d longed for since childhood. It’s a journey. But Tina takes the time to tell its story with heart, vigor, rock rhythms, and heartfelt grace notes.

What Movies Will It Remind You Of? Like Tina, The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend A Broken Heart (2020) mined a rich vein of archival footage and aligned that haul with revealing contemporary interviews to tell an essential rock ‘n’ roll story. B.B. King – Life of Riley, John Brewer’s fawning 2014 portrait of the legendary bluesman, posts its subject at each turning point between the blues, rock music, and the power of live performance. And the 2017 Netflix doc Gaga: Five Foot Two delved deep into the life and pathos of a pop star whose work, like Turner’s, has put her personal life on display.

Performance Worth Watching: Tina Turner’s story is imprinted on 20th century popular culture. But Tina gives Turner, now a still fabulous 81, the sturdiest platform yet to present her history, own her truth, and fully cement her terrific legacy of music and meaning.

Memorable Quotes: “I lived a shameful life, and I found a way to live with it by just being ashamed.” In “Ike & Tina” and “Family,” parts one and two of this five-act documentary, the full weight of Tina’s tortured life with husband and collaborator Ike truly comes to bear.

Sex and Skin: You mean besides the wild sexual energy inherent in so many of Tina Turner’s most electrifying live performances, of which so many appear here? Then no, nothing. [Wipes sweat from brow.]

Our Take: There are a couple of sequences in Tina where its visual flair entwines masterfully with its emotional hinges. In one, we travel to 1966 and Los Angeles’s Gold Star Studios, where Turner and producer Phil Spector crafted “River Deep — Mountain High.” It was the first time that she was professionally free of the controls and creative barriers of her husband Ike, and archival footage captures her and Spector building the monstrous, beautiful pop symphony that became “River Deep.” “It was so big, and my voice sounded so different,” Turner says in a contemporary interview, “standing on top of all that music.” And Tina stays with the footage of Turner performing the song for an extended bit, letting its majesty ride on surging strings, crashing cymbals, and a Wall of Sound wave. Later, as Turner, informed by her immersion into Buddhism, finally ascends from the wreckage of her marriage to Ike, and seems to discover herself for the first time, Tina flickers between archive, mantra, and the slipstream of memory to reveal her true self. It’s gripping, poignant stuff.

Its emotional heft is valuable. But you could hang with Tina just for the music and be more than satisfied. The live footage here charts a storied course. It embarks from the primordial ooze of rock ‘n’ roll overland, through 1960’s television bandstands and the neon babylon of 1970’s Las Vegas, to countless cabarets, sweaty clubs, and the 1980’s music video era (“BEEE goood to MEEE!”), all the way to a sold out soccer stadium in Rio de Janeiro, where 186,000 fans scream for more Tina. When she finally takes to the Broadway stage in 2019, on opening night of the Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, it’s with a bow her fans, but also to who all that performative experience made her out to be, i.e., the true queen of rock ‘n’ roll.

Our Call: STREAM IT. Stream it if only for the scintillating live footage. But that combines with remarkable biographical notes to present an iconic rock ‘n’ roll story touched with trauma, redemption, and real heart.

Johnny Loftus is an independent writer and editor living at large in Chicagoland. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, All Music Guide, Pitchfork Media, and Nicki Swift. Follow him on Twitter: @glennganges

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