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'Tina' Directors On Walking A Fine Line In New Tina Turner Documentary

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, in music and sports and entertainment, there are celebrities, and then there are icons - those who can be known with just one name. That's why a new documentary now out on HBO is simply called "Tina."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BEST")

TINA TURNER: (Singing) You're simply the best. You're better than all the rest.

MARTIN: That's right. In a new documentary, Tina Turner, with the help of some friends and an amazing collection of archival footage, tells the full story of her remarkable life - her early beginnings, tumultuous, often abusive relationships, her rise to stardom, and then an even bigger rise to become one of the biggest stars on the planet.

We're joined now by the Academy Award-winning directors of the documentary, Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin. Dan and T.J., welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

DAN LINDSAY: Thanks for having us.

TJ MARTIN: Thanks for having us.

MARTIN: So I'm not sure who wants to answer this because there's always, you know, an interesting story about how a project like this comes together. But what made you want to tell this story? I mean, she's written a memoir herself. There's a musical that debuted in 2019 based on her life. What made you want to tell this story in this way?

LINDSAY: Well, this is Dan. And the idea of doing it was conceived by our producers, Simon Chinn and Jonathan Chinn. And they had spoke with Tina about the idea of doing it, and she had agreed. And then we were approached to direct it. And we were honestly a little hesitant at first. We had some concerns about two men telling Tina's story. And as much as we kind of knew the broad strokes of her past, we didn't really know it in granular detail. And I think then when we got to know Tina and realized and kind of made a discovery early on of the complicated relationship she has to her own story, that was really the thing for us that gave us our point of view and kind of inspired us in the way we wanted to make the film.

MARTIN: T.J., anything you want to add?

MARTIN: Yeah. I mean, the only thing I'd add is the pain of her past was just so present. And we knew that there were sensitivities in terms of talking about Ike with her, but she kind of naturally brought the conversation in that direction. And as she talked about it, she was very transparent with us about how complicated it is for her and how much - if she talks too much about Ike, he comes back to her in dreams, and it feels as if the abuse was happening yesterday. And so for us, that was - it was a revelation. It really shouldn't have been a revelation. But this notion that even at 80 years old, she's still processing her trauma, you know, and that's just something we couldn't shake.

MARTIN: Let's just talk about the - because we have to get to the pain parts. I'm sorry. Unfortunately, we do. But I don't want to glide past the mega-wattage of her...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

MARTIN: ...Her abilities. Like, what is it that - I mean, here she is. You know, it's hard to believe that this is a person who was almost kicked off of her label at some point, and for the most racist reasons, most kind of racist, sexist, ageist - name at all. And yet, as a huge star, she's packing stadiums around the world in her late 40s and 50s. So what is it as a performer? What do you think - what qualities as a performer set her apart?

MARTIN: You know, I mean, that's - I think we're all still trying to figure that out. And if we could, I would somehow bottle up that energy and (laughter) use it for myself.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

MARTIN: I mean, that's part of the magic of Tina, right? And, you know, we take a very particular POV with this film. And the one thing we don't lean into as much is her prowess as a performer and as a vocalist. As she says herself, you know, it was a gift. She sang in choir, but she never actually had, like, actual vocal training. Same thing with dance. She never had dance training. And yet here she is. She just - as she'll say, it's just once the music plays, it just - something comes natural to her.

MARTIN: You know, as much as I - I don't know. I don't know how to feel about this because as much as I would like to not talk about this, the fact is, I don't see how you cannot not talk about this because so much of the story, both personal and in the media, revolves around her abusive ex-husband, now deceased, Ike Turner. I mean, the story involving Ike - I mean, when it finally emerged was - it was such a sensation. And I don't know that I really fully got the depth of it until I saw your film.

But it also talks about how she really - I don't know why people didn't figure this out. It is so traumatic, you don't want to keep reliving the trauma. And I want to play a clip from the documentary. In the shot right before this, we see Tina in a taped interview. And when the journalist brings up Ike, she says, we're going to talk about him? And you can almost see her flinch, right?

So then we're going to hear a small sample of the many, many personal questions that she faced. And we hear from her at the end of the clip. With that setup, I'm going to play that now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TINA")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: You raised a son by him, a son by another man, and two of Ike's kids by other women. There were always other women on the scene. What was that like for you?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: When you were married to Ike, what was the absolutely worst moment?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: What do you think attracts women to bad men?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Is there a real lowlight, something you'd love to forget?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: And, of course, the book and the movie features your allegations about his bashings. Tell me about that.

TURNER: I'm past it. It's been 16 years since I haven't been with Ike. And the movie and the book is bringing me back to the past of something that was really awful. My life is wonderful at the moment. I'm a happy person now, and I don't dwell on unhappiness.

MARTIN: You clearly had a point of view about putting this together in this way. So tell me what you're thinking about this. And what do you think about that? Like, why do you think there was this obsession with what she went through? Maybe, Dan, you want to go first?

LINDSAY: I think there's a - just an inherent contradiction or paradox or complication that we were interested in in the beginning, and it's this idea that Tina's story as a survivor can be very powerful for people and for - especially for other survivors, right? But the thing that we, I think, often fail to realize is - or maybe we assume because Tina has this seemingly strength and resilience, that she herself is somehow superhuman. And I think what we wanted to try to show in the film is that she is human like everyone else. And that as a survivor, she is making that choice to survive every day. And so this difficult paradox is that, yes, her story brings immense value to us, but we have to also consider the other side, that anytime she is asked to talk about it, to share that, it can be re-traumatizing for her.

MARTIN: You interviewed a lot of the people around her. And I'm trying not to be judgmental because I wasn't there. I'm still having a hard time understanding why nobody helped her. Like, why would people see her covered with blood, with black eyes - you know, he could have killed her. And I don't understand why it is that nobody ever seemed to step up to help.

LINDSAY: This is Dan again. I mean, it's something we talked with LeJeune about a lot. And it's something we talked with Rhonda.

MARTIN: LeJeune is one of her...

LINDSAY: LeJeune was a backup dancer and an Ikette. And Rhonda was Tina's longtime confidant. She was a tour manager for Ike and Tina, and then she went on to work with Tina in her solo years as well and one of the closest people to Tina. And, you know, Rhonda was a victim of abuse as well, and LeJeune was a witness to it.

I think you can't underestimate the power that Ike had in all of those relationships. He was the way that anyone was making money. He controlled all the finances. He controlled every aspect of the performance. And so, you know, I'm not going to try to pretend to fully know the answer, but I think there is - it's just extremely complicated.

MARTIN: You said that you had a point of view in putting this film together. Did she have a point of view in helping you put this film together? And if so, what was it?

MARTIN: This is T.J. talking. It wasn't until we really engaged with the film that we realized the journey that we went on with Tina was this discovery that she is actually trying to hang up the persona of Tina. And whether she was privy to that going into it or not, we certainly were not aware. What's featured in the film is the premier of the Broadway musical that she attends.

And this is near the end of the process for us, or at least the filming process. That was the first time - it was very kind of palpable that she was very anxious to go to the musical, do the red carpet and attend this event. And it was - a lot of it just came from this notion of, you know, I - she was deeply appreciative of the adoration and the homage to her. But I think she's tired. I think she's tired of living the narrative of Tina and being a participant in that. I think she's at a place in her life where she gave six decades of her life to the stage, and she gave a lot of herself. And she genuinely wants to sit back in her castle on the lake in Zurich...

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: ...And relax. And I think she's definitely - first of all, she's certainly earned it (laughter). And I think that was very genuine - at least, what you see in the film is this - as she points out, this rhetorical, like, how do you bow out, and how do you bow out slowly? And I think that was something we discovered along the way.

MARTIN: That was T.J. Martin and Dan Lindsay, directors of the new documentary "Tina." It's out now on HBO. T.J. Martin, Dan Lindsay, thank you both so much for joining us.

LINDSAY: Thanks for having us.

MARTIN: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT'S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT")

TURNER: (Singing) Oh, what's love got to do, got to do with it? What's love but a secondhand emotion? What's love got to do, got to do with it? Who needs a heart when a heart can be broken? Oh... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.