One of the most famous lines from Tina Turner’s career came in her introduction to the version of John Fogerty’s “Proud Mary” released by Ike & Tina Turner in 1971. “We never ever do nothing nice and easy,” she said in a sultry snarl. “We always do it nice and rough.”
“Tina,” the documentary about Turner that premiered at the 2021 Berlin International Film Festival, has moments where it tries to be nice and easy, sliding over difficult portions in Turner’s life in an attempt to find a celebratory tone. But the film, too, mostly settles for nice and rough, which fits a woman who says in the film, “It wasn’t a good life. It was in some areas, but the goodness didn’t overcome the bad.”
The bad is mostly wrapped up in the years Tina Turner spent with her mentor, Svengali and abusive husband, Ike, whose dark shadow hangs over the entire film. But while the story is horrifying at times, moving at other times and occasionally thrilling as Tina’s own power emerges, “Tina” also feels curiously truncated and incomplete. Directors Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin, who won an Oscar for the terrific high-school football documentary “Undefeated” and more recently the immersive Los Angeles riots chronicle “LA 92,” have made a doc that always feels a little removed from its subject, as if Turner wasn’t fully committed to going through it all again.
“Tina” includes a video interview with Turner shot at her home in Zurich in 2019, but much of what she says about her past doesn’t come from that conversation. Instead, it’s drawn from audiotapes of a People magazine interview she did in 1981, when she revealed for the first time how Ike beat her, and of sessions she did with writer Kurt Loder when he co-authored her autobiography in the mid-1980s.
Apart from the archival footage, with its priceless performances from TV shows and concerts, the film is stylized and increasingly melodramatic: The interview subjects are shot in imposing settings, usually sitting in chairs in large rooms with ornate furnishings and distant walls. “Tina” is fascinated by empty spaces, with the camera frequently panning down empty hallways and floating through rooms where things might have happened.
The story, though, is harrowing. Turner, born Anna Mae Bullock in rural Tennessee, became a fan of Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm while still a teenager, and began singing with them in 1957. At first, she and Ike had a brother-sister type of relationship (and she had a child with another band member). But by the early ’60s, she and Ike had married and he changed her name to Tina Turner.
The abuse, she said, started early in their relationship: Ike would beat her with coat hangers, have sex with her afterward and then force her to go onstage. Caught up in what she says was “guilt and fear,” she went along with it and didn’t try to get away.
While those years produced some landmark recordings, including the monumental Phil Spector production “River Deep – Mountain High,” which Spector recorded without Ike in the studio, the film’s examination of the music itself is cursory. Instead, the first two sections of the film — the first one titled “Ike & Tina,” the second “Family” — focus on Ike’s brutality, and finally on her escape, when she walked out of a Dallas hotel room, checked into a Ramada Inn with only the clothes on her back and left him almost everything in the ensuing divorce.
The third section of the film, “Comeback,” finds Turner doing cabaret shows and playing Las Vegas before she’s rescued by manager Roger Davies, who engineered the career resurgence that began with the 1984 album “Private Dancer” and its massive, Grammy-winning hit “What’s Love Got to Do With It.” A video of the original, terrible version of the song by the British pop ground Bucks Fizz is one of the few bits of levity in “Tina.”
But when you think that her career is on the upswing and her life is happier, the film takes a detour with a section called “The Story.” Ostensibly about her decision to write about her life in the 1986 autobiography “I, Tina,” it turns into a lengthy description of how Turner wrote the book so that she could stop talking about her relationship with Ike, and how it disappointed her to find that people still wanted to talk about that. That’s an odd topic to dwell on 90 minutes into a film that has itself skimmed through much of her career to focus on the Ike story — and that imbalance isn’t helped by an increase in those portentous tracking shots through empty rooms.
Still, there are extraordinary moments here, none more so than concert footage of Turner performing an astounding slow version of the Beatles song “Help”; she takes John Lennon’s desperate words and makes them ravaged and soulful in a way that speaks volumes about her state of mind.
It’s also a more effective summation of Turner’s power than the final section of the film, “Love,” which tracks her relationship with her husband, Erwin Bach, from the time they met on a European concert tour to the present day. In wrapping up the story this way, the film skips a surprising number of major life events, including a stroke only weeks after her wedding, intestinal cancer and kidney failure. We see her needing help to get down the aisle at the premiere of the musical “Tina,” with Bach on one arm and Oprah Winfrey on the other — but we never learn that she had to learn to walk again after her stroke, or that Bach donated one of his kidneys when she needed a transplant.
The ending feels oddly abbreviated and sanitized, especially considering how much time the film has spent on the violence she endured. “I had an abusive life,” she says near the end of the film. “That’s the truth. There’s no other way to tell the story.”
And yet, footage like that transfixing performance of “Help” suggests that there should be other ways to tell the story than the way it’s done in “Tina” — ways that feel fuller and richer and are more up to the challenge of capturing Tina Turner in all her rough glory.
Following its Berlin Film Festival premiere, “Tina” will air on HBO beginning on March 27.