Before the rise of #MeToo, the ongoing cascade of sexual-harassment accusations it set off, and the fetishization of victimhood, there was Tina Turner. A survivor in the truest sense of the word, one who escaped her husband’s brutal grip after 16 years of marriage, then turned around and re-invented her career, Turner is the subject of a riveting, artfully constructed new HBO documentary called, simply, Tina.
I first came upon Turner in the mid-1980s, when she was no longer performing with her husband Ike’s backup group and had started a solo career, going multi-platinum with her breakthrough album, Private Dancer. I was struck by her throbbing, singularly powerful voice, which seemed to suggest an ocean of experience kept just barely under control behind it.
Then there was the way she skittered across the stage, moving like no other singer I had ever seen, a kinetic vision of glamour with her streaked blond wigs, architectonic cheekbones, and slash of coral lipstick on her sensuous mouth, her tight body (with those fabulous, endless gams that were rumored to be insured) clad in outfits made of shimmery gold or silver fabric—the whole effect ended up looking classy instead of tawdry.
It was impossible by that point not to be aware of the bruising details of her marriage to the talented but violently abusive Ike, whom she’d fallen in love with when she was 17 years old. Shy and laconic as he may have seemed in public—when Dick Cavett interviewed the couple, Tina did all the talking—he was a monster at home.
He bashed her around every chance he got, beating her with coat hangers and shoe stretchers, leaving her with black eyes, a broken nose, or a busted lip. The beatings were followed by sex. “I was living a life of death,” she recalls without an ounce of self-pity in one of the film’s interviews, which were conducted in Zurich, Switzerland, where the 81-year-old now lives harmoniously with her husband, Erwin Bach. “I didn’t exist. But I survived it.… When I walked out, I didn’t look back.”
Turner began life on November 26, 1939, as Anna Mae Bullock in Nutbush, Tennessee. Her family were sharecroppers: “I’m a girl from a cotton field that pulled myself up from what was not taught to me,” she says with quiet pride. She sang in a Baptist-church choir and dreamed about the life lived by the “beautiful ladies of Hollywood.”
“I was living a life of death,” she recalls without an ounce of self-pity. “I didn’t exist. But I survived it.... When I walked out, I didn’t look back.”
Her parents abandoned her early on, and she always had the feeling that she wasn’t a wanted child. (This didn’t stop Turner from supporting her mother when she re-entered the singer’s life decades later.) It was 1957 when she first saw Ike playing with his band, Kings of Rhythm, and “almost went into a trance.” Ike gave the schoolgirl, “ignorant of showbiz,” her name and her career.
Along with his womanizing and grimly controlling nature, Ike was a perfectionist who rehearsed constantly. Turner acknowledges during the film that her ex-husband, who died of a cocaine overdose in 2007, was an important part of R&B history and that he wrote the first rock ’n’ roll record, “Rocket 88,” the credit for which went to his saxophone player.
Ike was “hung up on abandonment—everyone leaves him,” she explains, as though still trying to understand the man. Before finally gathering up the courage to leave Ike, she made a suicide attempt, which led to her stomach being pumped. Footage and photographs show her as a wife and mother to four sons (one of whom was hers with Ike), frying breakfast bacon at the family’s house in Los Angeles, but she recalls that she was “always sad.”
She left in 1976, after another pummeling that rendered her puffy and bloodied, while he was sleeping in their room at a Hilton in Dallas. The next day was the Fourth of July—“That’s when I got my freedom.” She flew to Los Angeles and went into hiding. “The divorce was clean-cut,” she notes crisply. “I got nothing.” The only thing she wanted was to own her name.
Turner’s second act was not as easily come by as it may seem in retrospect. Her self-reinvention took years of playing countless shows booked by her manager, Roger Davies, who had to convince Capitol Records not to get rid of her. “There was always the shadow of Ike Turner,” he observes. “But she’s a professional—you’d never know anything was up.”
She finally found recognition in Europe, where they “got her.” She arrived in London in 1983—“It felt like home”—and in 1984 she knocked out Private Dancer in two weeks, which would go on to sell 20 million copies. There was no going back.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this film, directed by Dan Lindsay and T. J. Martin, is the counter-narrative that runs alongside the of-the-moment, Oprah-ready story (Oprah is in the film) about an abusive man and the woman who suffers and, ultimately, triumphs, a model of resilience for the rest of us to admire.
It is that, of course, but it is also much more. Turner prefers not to look back at the past and mine it for its traumatic potential, though she has indeed been traumatized. “It wasn’t a good life…. I don’t want to be reminded,” she explains. “I just really don’t want to play the part.” Her refusal to cast herself as the victim in a time when many women are competing for a role that is hers to claim is as fascinating as it is unexpected—and, most of all, genuinely inspiring—to watch.
Daphne Merkin is the author of numerous books, including the memoir This Close to Happy and the novels Enchantment and 22 Minutes of Unconditional Love