The phrase “living legend” gets thrown around a lot, but right now, at the Château Algonquin in Küsnacht, Switzerland, overlooking Lake Zurich, Tina Turner—née Anna Mae Bullock of Nutbush, Tennessee—is living her best life. Anyone with ears knows her music, and anyone who’s culturally aware knows about her struggles and eventual triumph. But Tina, the documentary debuting March 27 on HBO, goes much deeper. The film, directed by Oscar winners Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin, features marvelous performance footage, of course, and commentary from people like Oprah Winfrey, Angela Bassett, and her collaborator on the memoir I, Tina: My Life Story, Kurt Loder. It also offers up a cache of rarely seen private photos, home movies, and audio recordings.
What one realizes watching Tina is that even though its subject has presented herself as an open book since 1981—when she first told a reporter from People magazine about the physical and mental abuse she suffered at the hands of her husband and musical puppet master, Ike Turner—one shouldn’t confuse resilience with victory. Tina Turner is someone who still struggles; sometimes, she seems caught in a loop of re-experiencing her break from Ike. But watching Tina—and chatting with Martin and Lindsay, as I recently did over Zoom—one understands that struggle’s resonance.
Vanity Fair: Before you say anything else, what’s the best Tina Turner song?
T.J. Martin: “River Deep—Mountain High.” I say that especially now, knowing the full story associated with the song. When I was a kid, it was “We Don’t Need Another Hero,” maybe because of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. But I want to hear what Dan says.
Dan Lindsay: Yes, “River Deep—Mountain High” is it. But also for guilty pleasure, I love “Better Be Good to Me.” Also, I get down with “Root Toot [Undisputable Rock ’N’ Roller].” Not a lot of people know it; it’s from the first official solo album that was never released in the United States. We dropped that song in for a moment, just as she leaves Ike and starts on her own.
We’re at a point now where pretty much any artist that has a fanbase gets a documentary—but you guys are Academy Award–winning directors, you won’t just make a movie about anyone. When did you know there was something here, for people who aren’t just in Tina’s built-in audience?
Lindsay: We’ve been reluctant to do any kind of “profile” documentary. They’re like the Marvel movie of the documentary world now. You get your budget! A lot of those docs are more music catalogues in search of a story.
But Simon Chinn, the producer, took us to lunch in London and said he had the rights to the first-ever Tina Turner documentary. We were like, “Oh, cool,” thinking, Yeah, I’ll watch that. Then, later, he reached out asking if we wanted to do it.
Which was weird. Why have two men do it? We came of age in the ’80s and knew her, obviously, but we weren’t the world’s biggest fans. But once we dove into her story, it was clear: this is a film, this is a proper saga. And also, we knew we’d have open doors to archives, with Tina willing to do it.
Were there other biographical docs you looked to?
Martin: We kept coming back to What Happened, Miss Simone? Not stylistically, but—and it’s in the title of the film—because it posed a question. There’s a thesis to the movie. Our film isn’t there just to service or leverage the success of the musician; we’re creating a point of view to explore something specific. Most music docs don’t cement themselves in that.
The artistry is present, but we don’t litter the film with Mick Jagger and Beyoncé and Bruce Springsteen for two hours discussing how she shaped music. That will come to you in the subtext.
The movie almost becomes a commentary on itself, as a look at fame and the idea of trying to “own” a story. So much of what drove Tina is that she wanted to stop talking about the abuse from Ike…and then not talking about it because [it was] something she had to talk about. There’s a clip you show of an older interview: She’s having a great day, then someone comes in with Ike questions and you see her spin out into a panic attack.
Now, you guys seem like sensitive guys. How do you address the whole snake-eating-the-tail aspect of this film?
Lindsay: I don’t even know if I can articulate it. We are aware we’re walking a fine line of “are we doing the same thing [as less-sensitive interviewers]?”
We knew that some of the material would come from archives. We had the details in the People magazine article, and the I, Tina tapes, so we didn’t need to drag her through that. But we did need her to talk about what it is like to be Tina Turner, a symbol and idea.
There are versions of this film that are even more meta, like opening with her at workshops of the Tina musical. It’s fascinating to think of an 80-year-old woman [sitting] down [to] watch the story of her life.
Martin: Our process with sensitive material is always to ask if we are being provocative for provocative’s sake, or are we navigating someone’s personal trauma with respect? Whether we were successful or not is not for us to determine, but for us in the room, you can feel the difference.
Has she seen the film?
Martin: Yes. And we were nervous, for exactly what we’re talking about. “Are we doing the same thing and creating a space to re-traumatize her?”
We didn’t realize how much of her trauma at this stage in her life is still bubbling right underneath the surface. Because that doesn’t line up with the narrative of Tina Turner, and the notion of someone who had the strength and resilience to overcome her abuse. Instead, it is someone who is processing and choosing to survive every day. That discovery fundamentally shaped the direction of the film. For me, that’s the standout thing.
During quarantine, they rented out a little screening room for her to watch the movie, and she changed the dates multiple times, which just made us even more nervous. But, eventually, she watched it, and it was reported back that she loved it. She enjoyed seeing the performances, and it was not as challenging to watch as she thought it might be. The note was that she said we’d gotten it right.
Two big turning points in Tina’s life come when she decides, while racing rather dramatically across a highway, to leave Ike, and then, years later, to tell her story to People magazine. In your film, she says that Buddhist chanting helped inspire her the first time and that before she decided to speak to a journalist, she “spoke to her psychic.” Decades later, are things like this still part of her life?
Lindsay: She definitely still chants.
Martin: That world of spirituality is very much her jam. Her Buddhist practices are something she’s legitimately used to awaken herself. Now, in terms of psychics or astrology? I just think she’s into that world. She’ll get excited and talk to you about it for a while.
Lindsay: In the ’70s and ’80s, the psychics really helped her. She would go to them hoping for good news. She used that to give her strength [to leave Ike].
There were some eye-opening things about her early career. At the beginning, she and Ike would do four shows a nigh. That’s intense—playing, dancing, the whole bit. Not everyone could do that; that’s an insane amount of determination.
Lindsay: Well, one person had that determination.
Martin: People would associate Ike and Tina and James Brown as the two hardest-working bands. They were something of an anomaly. Ike was obsessive and hyper-competitive. I mean, there’s a whole film—hell, there’s a whole series you could do on Ike Turner on how his dark past manifested itself into how he treated people. But they were not the norm, working as absurdly hard as they did to perfect everything.
One thing your film expresses well is that apart from the physical abuse, which is horrific, and the verbal abuse, there is also the creative abuse Ike had over Tina. Because life is messy, her first glimmer of artistic freedom comes from an unlikely savior: Phil Spector for “River Deep—Mountain High.”
Lindsay: I think she still considers him… [pause] They had a good relationship. He inducted her, and Ike, into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
The number of bad men in Tina’s life…I mean, there’s footage of her on The Tonight Show with Bill Cosby as guest host, and you can see that she understands who he is. Watching in retrospect, you think, Wow, this is super loaded. There’s footage of her getting the Mark Twain [Prize], and the first person they cut to is Kevin Spacey. I don’t know if this is just commentary on our society or what.
There’s even a tender archival moment in an interview, and right at her side is Mel Gibson.
Well, now, thankfully, she’s in a better spot—in Switzerland, in this amazing palace, which you’ve been to. Talk to me about it.
Martin: It is 100% Tina. The decor, the vibe, the space. [Her husband] Erwin [Bach] will you remind you of that over and over. In this chapter of her life, she really enjoys exploring other facets of her creativity: design, fashion, decorating, gardening. What’s happening inside the house is her eye, and she likes to show it off.
Lindsay: The first time we talked to her, we were sitting on chairs owned by Louis XIV—literally from Versailles. I was scared to drink my coffee that I might spill it.
Martin: And the papier-mâché horse! A life-size horse hanging from the ceiling. It’s pretty trippy. Was it papier-mâché, Dan?
Lindsay: I don’t know what it was made out of, but it’s intense. It’s in a dining nook.
It’s a healthy combination of old photo shoots from her past, a lot of black-and-white, combined with elegant artifacts, like from Louis XIV, combined with family stuff and Erwin’s family stuff. It’s a healthy, warm environment, and where she and Erwin were married.
I love how you recreated the Los Angeles house during that chapter in her life, which looked just like the one in What’s Love Got to Do With It? Did you base it off the same old photos?
Lindsay: That’s actually the house.
Lindsay: Someone had filmed it, in the hopes of using the footage at some point. We heard it existed, and it was in line with how we were shooting other things. It’s a miracle, because they got in there before it was torn down.
I���m stunned! The decor looked the same.
Lindsay: So the story is, Ike sold the house to a dentist, and he was obsessed with Ike and Tina, so he preserved the house. They shot What’s Love Got to Do With It? in that house. The bed and everything was all still there, totally creepy.
I am going to any other dentist.
Lindsay: All the other footage, all the Super 8mm, the Vegas stuff—no one’s ever seen it before. That was all from Ronda Graam [Tina’s friend, assistant, and tour manager], who sadly just passed away in January.
Martin: Ronda was with Tina since 1964; Ronda was just 19. She was an amateur photographer, so once we gained her trust, she was showing us photo albums catalogued by year. It just kept coming and coming. It helped shape the aesthetic of the film. You think a Tina Turner film will be big and glossy, but we had this wealth of material that was intimate and candid.
Lindsay: We watched footage of Gimme Shelter by the Maysles brothers, and there’s a moment of Ike and Tina backstage with Mick Jagger and you see Ronda take a picture and come into frame. And we’re like, “That photo has to exist!” So we asked Ronda, and there it is!
Since you brought it up—it’s not a criticism of your film, but Tina and Mick are, for me anyway, quite linked. He wasn’t interested in being in the film?
Lindsay: We had an archive interview with him as placeholder. Then we did a little less of that first tour [1966 with the Rolling Stones]. We were set up to interview him when he was going to play at the Rose Bowl in 2019, but it was cancelled when he had heart surgery. And then, I dunno…some producers kept saying, “Hey, what about Mick Jagger? How about Rod Stewart? Don’t you want to interview them?” But it just didn’t feel right.
Things get edited in movies! I’m wondering, did she share anything from the production of Mad Max that got cut?
Lindsay: I remember something from the Kurt Loder tapes, where she was worried about shaving her head. It was a big deal for her, to be without her wig. Obviously, she had hair pieces with her costume, but this was a really big deal for her.
I am just flabbergasted by the statistic of that concert in Brazil: 180,000 people in the audience. When you hear “sold out Madison Square Garden,” it’s supposed to be impressive. That’s only 20,000! I guess I don’t have a question here; I just wanted to say, wow.
Lindsay: She held the record for a long time: biggest audience for a solo performance. We took the raw footage of that show and got the multitrack audio from Tina’s archive, so remixed that performance of “I Can’t Stand the Rain.” It sucks that people can’t see that in a theater.
That song rules so hard.
Lindsay: Before this, I associated her mostly as a pop artist, and that’s not really what I am a fan of. I loved the early R&B, but I didn’t yet recognize the strength of Tina Turner as a performer.
T.J. and I had a thing where it was, “Man, can we really put ‘The Best’ in a movie?” It’s the most obvious thing. So we know we’ve succeeded if we can play “The Best” and someone like me won’t roll their eyes.
So when we found that performance of her in Amsterdam that plays with the credits, I watched it in the edit bay and I was moved. Something about her live, commanding that performance, and by the end of the movie, you’ve been on a journey.
Martin: She’s earned “The Best” by the end of this movie.
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