Tina Turner endured domestic violence and reinvented herself after divorce, new HBO film shows

Written by Andrea Domanick and Amy Ta, produced by Rosalie Atkinson

Tina Turner set a high bar for live entertainers with her energetic performances of hit songs like “What’s Love Got to Do With It” and “Proud Mary.” She was known for her dancing, twirling, and stomping on stages in short sequined dresses. 

But that vibrant entertainer hid a painful private life. When she was married to Ike Turner for 16 years, he physically and emotionally abused her, sometimes right before they went onstage together. She says nobody knew.

Finally, she left him and reinvented herself as a solo act. But the abuse haunted the rest of her career.

Now at age 81, she is the subject of a revealing documentary on HBO. “Tina” delves into the star’s early years and relationship with Ike. Co-directors Dan Lindsay and TJ Martin worked closely with her on this film.

KCRW: Were you big fans of hers before you made this movie? 

TJ Martin: “We grew up in the [19]80s, and we were very aware of Tina Turner. As we got older, we obviously respected her artistry very much. I wouldn't necessarily say we were both fans of hers going into the film. It took a while for us to try to come to terms with why we were necessarily the right fit for this film, but no, not necessarily at the beginning.”

Why were you the right fit for this movie though? 

Dan Lindsay: “I think that probably still needs to be determined by the general public. But for us, we knew the broad strokes of Tina's story, we knew that there were other tellings of it that existed. But as we dug into it and talked to Tina, we felt like there was an opportunity to really not only tell a story, but to explore some things within that story that were interesting to us.”

The key animating part of her life that the film keeps going back to is her turbulent marriage to Ike Turner, who was incredibly abusive to her. Midway through in the documentary, she says that she has become her own woman after she leaves Ike and becomes a superstar. And yet everyone keeps asking her about it, and she doesn't want to talk about Ike. And yet, this movie, and the things that she wants to talk about, are about that, too. So how did you and she reconcile that?

Lindsay: “There's a difference or separation between Tina Turner the person, and the story of Tina Turner. And the two have become so connected that I think she has come to discover now that to separate those things is almost impossible. 

The first time she told this story was in 1981 in a “People” magazine profile. That date was really interesting to us, because we knew in 1981 that Tina Turner was not in the spotlight. At that time, she was playing hotels and the cabaret circuit. So it piqued our curiosity as to why this profile happened. In talking to Tina, we realized that the motivation to come forward and speak the truth of her relationship with Ike was in an attempt to actually release herself from him.

She was having trouble gaining a record deal in the United States, and she thought that if she could reveal this truth, that might help her be separated from him. Of course, the irony is that it just created a connection between her and her past in a way that she was never able to really get away from.”

Martin: “The one thing that is very absent from a lot of different versions that are told of Tina's story is the clarity of how she still struggles with her past. It always feels like there's this idea that Tina Turner endured some really painful moments in her life and suffered from an abusive family that she grew up with, from abandonment from her mom, and from abuse from Ike Turner. 

Yet the narrative is always that she got over it, and then she’s the victor at the end of the day. The one thing that we always felt was missing is this notion that she's continuing to survive today. She's making the decision to survive, even at this chapter in her life. It's a daily decision to be a survivor.”

Tina Turner in concert in Versailles, France (1990). Courtesy of HBO.

So she's still incredibly traumatized?

Lindsay: “Yes. What she revealed to us in talking about that time of her life is that it can bring back memories for her, often in her dreams or nightmares, where it feels as real to her as the first time it happened.”

Let's go back to the beginning, because she does credit Ike with putting her on this musical path. She wasn't considering a career or a life on the stage. She grew up poor in Tennessee. Her name was Anna Mae Bullock. Ike gave her the name “Tina Turner” and her start in show business. Then they married and became stars. But behind the scenes, he became increasingly controlling and abusive.

Lindsay: “Yes, one of the amazing things that at least we learned in this was that the first band that Tina Turner ever saw live on stage with instruments was Ike Turner and the Kings of Rhythm. She was 17 years old. And within a few months, she joined that band. She was referred to as ‘Little Anne’ and she was a singer.

As the story goes, Ike had written a song for another singer, who didn't show up at the recording session. Tina said, ‘I know the song,’ and so she sang on it. They thought it would just be a demo, but somebody heard it and said, ‘That's a hit.’ And Ike, having the experience of having other singers leave him in the past, decided he was going to name and copyright this ‘Tina and Ike Turner,’ and basically, in many ways, was going to own Tina, in that way. 

As she said, she was young and naive. But she also loved Ike and it was a very complicated relationship at the beginning. As time went on and Ike’s paranoia of her possibly leaving him grew more and more, that led to a lot of the violence that Tina suffered in Ike’s attempts to control her.”

Tina Turner and Ikettes perform for Bolic Sound KMET broadcast (May 1973). Photo Credit: Rhonda Graam, courtesy of HBO

Tina Turner had an incredible stage presence. That came naturally to her, she wasn't taught how to do any of that. Was that incredibly threatening to Ike?

Martin: “Without a doubt. Her gift is something that very much threatened Ike, and the more adoration he saw that she was getting within the public eye, [it] made him realize that maybe she's the thing that is actually giving life to the Ike and Tina Turner Revue. 

That obviously made him increasingly insecure, and took more crazy measures of keeping her contained. A major theme of the film is this idea of ownership. Ike gave her the name Tina based off of some fantasy that he had from a character on a TV show. A big part of the journey that Tina goes on is reclaiming her own identity. Even when they split, she holds on to the name as a means to reappropriate and give her own own ownership to it. 

And then, the rise of the Tina Turner that we all fell in love with was wrought with struggles of navigating a music industry that didn't know how to place or categorize her. And here she is, continuingly fighting for her own place in music and to really have her own unique narrative.”

Can you talk about the day she decided to leave Ike? They were traveling and staying in a hotel room and she decided enough is enough. And then what happened?

Lindsay: “She had promised Ike she would never leave him, or at least that she would not until he had gotten the string of hits that he thought he needed to secure himself. But one day they were on the way to a gig in Dallas, Texas, and Ike got upset with her over something very small. And he hit her, and that day, she decided to hit him back. They got into a fight in the back of a limousine.

By the time they got to the hotel, Tina was bloody and Ike was a little scraped up. They went up to their hotel room to prepare for the show, and Ike fell asleep. Tina took her purse, and that was it. She had 36 cents and a Mobil gas card. She ran away from the hotel and across the freeway to a small hotel and asked the manager for a room, and he gave her a room. She flew back to LA the next day and started her life without Ike. It's a remarkable part of her story.”

She had no money, right? He took all her money and controlled all the finances.

Lindsay: “Yes, Tina was never paid when she performed with Ike. They bought a house and he controlled the finances completely. She had none of her own money.”

How old was she when she had to reinvent herself?

Lindsay: “When she left Ike, would have been in her late 30s. But when she started performing again, she was 39, 40 years old. There were several years of that time when she was playing in Vegas and the cabaret circuit and just doing what she could to get by. 

When she left Ike, part of the divorce settlement was that in exchange for getting the ability to perform under the name Tina Turner, she had to take all of their debts and the kids, and he left her with nothing. She had to do whatever she could to survive, and the thing she knew how to do was perform. She met Roger Davies, who became her manager, and the two of them were able to shape this vision that she had to become the Tina Turner that we know and associate with today.”

She then wants to do rock and roll, and “ What's Love Got to Do With It ” starts a new sound for her. It becomes a huge hit, and there's no looking back from there.

Martin: “There was a big transition happening in music around that time in the early ‘80s. When she and Roger Davies partnered up, there was a coming of age aspect happening where she had to start to trust her new collaborator, who had his finger more on the pulse of what was going on in pop music.

What’s beautiful about Tina, and what you see in the film, is the combination of Roger’s sensibilities towards pop music, but also Tina having ownership of her voice and her artistic prowess, and what she provides on a pop track that all of a sudden becomes this very distinct style.”

Toward the end of the film, she remarries. She has a great love affair with Erwin Bach. But she says that she never was loved, her mother didn't love her. She didn’t feel love from Ike. She only found love much later in life when she remarried.

Lindsay: “What you're referring to was actually an interview she had done with Kurt Loder for the writing of the book ‘I, Tina,’ and Kurt was generous enough to share those tapes with us. That was profoundly sad, to think that, at that time, she's one of the biggest pop stars in the world, and she's performing in front of tens of thousands of people every day and feels that she's never had a loving relationship in her life.

That, for us, was also part of what the film was about. On its surface, it's a film about trauma and overcoming trauma. But a lot of it is about, in terms of Tina, her quest for love, both in a partnership way, but also self love and love of your own narrative and identity. It's what led us to want to explore her relationship with Erwin. Normally, we would have been like, ‘Oh, finding true love is a little syrupy to end on,’ but it really felt like the logical ending point to that story."