In the long history of women escaping abusive men, few stories are more well known than that of Tina Turner’s eventual exit from her husband and band leader Ike. There are several reasons why we know Tina’s story: Her own fame, the matter of public record, her autobiography with Kurt Loder “I, Tina,” but of course, it’s the cinematic dramatization of her life, What’s Love Got To Do With It, starring Angela Bassett as Tina in what is still seen as Bassett’s signature role, that cemented Turner’s legacy.
Released in 1993, What’s Love Got To Do With It scored Bassett and Laurence Fishburne Oscar nominations in their respective leading categories, and was a hit with critics and filmgoers both (the film grossed $61 million that year, which scales up to $128 million in current dollars). While there are many powerful scenes in What’s Love Got To Do With It, the two I remember most are Tina jumping out of a limo after a domestic altercation with Ike, and then walking into a hotel, looking the worse for wear, with no money on her and asking the clerk if he had a room for Tina Turner. The quiet kindness of the concierge speaks to the power of the woman standing in front of him. The second scene takes place in court where during their divorce proceedings, Tina Turner asks for nothing more than to keep her name (Turner was born Anna Mae Bullock). And here’s the thing about both scenes, they aren’t folklore, they were true. For all the suffering Turner labored under with Ike, when she made her decision to break with him, she left with nothing. Nothing but her name. As Turner herself has said, I wanted it because “I earned it.”
But Turner’s history on film, however sleight, is not limited to the dramatization of her life story. Ike and Tina recorded a slew of classic songs in the ‘60s and ‘70s (including “River Deep, Mountain High,” “Proud Mary,” and “Nutbush City Limits,” and they were staples on TV variety shows as well as on the airwaves. Perhaps most famously, Ike and Tina can be seen performing “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” in the landmark Rolling Stones documentary, Gimme Shelter. Then in 1975, Turner played and sang “The Acid Queen” in Ken Russell’s remarkably nutty take on the Who’s rock opera, Tommy. On The Who’s album that the film is based on, their great lead singer Roger Daltrey sang the track, but I’ll be damned if Tina’s version of “The Acid Queen” isn’t the definitive one.
I can recall the first time I saw Ike and Tina onstage on some variety show or another, and being absolutely knocked out of my chair. Turner’s voice was wild, but somehow she was always capable of keeping her pipes from going off the rails even when the frenetic sound of her music reached a fever pitch. There was a raw sexuality to those performances that is hard to put into words. It’s not just the short skirts, the rawness of Turner’s vocal delivery, or even the incredibly thigh spasming dancing that Tina and the Ikettes would let loose with while somehow still staying on key. I guess it was just everything put together, but most of it was just Tina. She performed like someone who was hoping to catch fire and go up in a cloud of smoke. I’d never seen anything like it. I suppose I still haven’t.
After splitting with Ike, Turner attempted one of the most difficult comebacks any female musical artist has ever embarked on. Broke, seemingly washed up, and perhaps most notably, she was 45 at the time. That’s no template for lift-off for a performer that was seen as a middle-aged has-been, but Tina proved all the doubters more than wrong, by recording the album of her life, 1984’s “Private Dancer.” An album that boasted five top 40 hits, including her massive number one hit single, “What’s Love Got To Do With It.”
Turner parlayed her newfound chart success into a starring role in George Miller’s final installment of his Mel Gibson / Mad Max trilogy, 1985’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Of the four Mad Max movies director George Miller has made, Thunderdome was probably the runt of the litter. That being said, a number of compensations could be found in abundance in Miller’s most sentimental and campy Mad Max film, and chief among those was Tina Turner’s performance as the wonderfully named Aunty Entity, the iron-fisted overlord of the post-apocalyptic Bartertown. The role fit Turner like a glove. Smartly, Miller knew to take advantage of Turner’s grit in the honey pipes by having her record two songs for the film: “We Don’t Need Another Hero” and “One of the Living.” The former was ubiquitous in 1985, soaring all the way to #2 on the pop charts, but it was the latter that really brought out that fiery Turner vocal that she was so well known for. As Tina rips through the lyrics below, you know she’s feeling them in her bones, because Tina Turner was some soul survivor.
And all they want to do is shoot bullets of fire
They want to fight and sometimes you’ve got to
You’re some soul survivor
Few actors have ever held such a commanding voice. As soon as Turner walked on screen with her long silver tresses, she owned the room. Something I imagine you could say about most of her life. Anytime Turner was in front of a camera, you simply could not take your eyes off of her. Unfortunately, Turner only acted as a character one more time in her career, playing “The Mayor” in 1993’s The Last Action Hero, although she did record the deeply underrated theme (written by Bono and The Edge) for the Pierce Brosnan Bond film, Goldeneye, and her HBOMax documentary from just 2021, titled simply Tina, was both lovely and elegiac.
This morning, I saw someone say on social media that it doesn’t seem possible that Tina Turner could die. Here is a woman who lived much of the first half of her life facing down fear with her own ferocity, and then lived the back half in splendor, respect, and adoration. The word “icon” gets thrown around a lot. But Tina Turner was every bit of that word and then some. I guess that’s why it’s so hard to believe that she’s gone.
Tina Turner died on May 24, 2023. She was 83 years old.