A torch-bearer for striking out on her own from a protracted abusive relationship and a legitimate, slam-bang black artiste reaches her crescendo at a mature age when most singers are over the hill, Tina Turner is an inspirational figure against sexism, agism and racism long before the woke era. Together, Brian Gibson’s 1993 biopic, and Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s latest documentary make for complementing accompaniments to each other, spelling out Tina’s extraordinary life in details.
WHAT’S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT stars Bassett as Tina and Fishburne and Ike, her ex-husband and helpmate as the half of Ike & Tina Turner. The film predominantly re-enacts their turbulent, violence-infused marital life and ends with a rousing note on Tina’s comeback success with the titular song. It is a dramatized version of the facts (according to Tina herself), and if the singing segments are excised, the remnant of the movie amounts to a hapless wife’s desperate and eventually successful attempt to get out of the clutches of her husband, who habitually whales at her at the drop of a hat, sometimes even rapes her afterwards.
This may be tainted by presentism, but there is something iffy to demonize Ike as an out-and-out villain and shoehorn Tina as an abject victim of domestic and sexual abuse, since she is much more than that, the psychological reasons behind the fact that she chooses to stay with Ike for 16 years are much more complex than they appear to be, and Gibson’s film has no interest to probe into that fecund soil, Tina’s devotion to Buddhism is tokenized with one repeated mantra alone. Only in TINA, we suss that they can be psyched out in relation of her piteous upbringing (parents fighting constantly and then both leaving, left her behind), feeling unwanted and hankering for love, Tina makes a promise to Ike that she will never abandon him (Ike’s deep-seated insecurity is another untapped territory in the fictional feature) when they transition from mentor-and-protégée to a romantically linked couple. It is a mistake in hindsight, but one must give Ike his credit in molding a wide-eyed country girl Anna Mae Bullock into Tina Turner, the raging dynamo on stage with a heavy, raspy but immensely powerful timbre.
WHAT’S LOVE… knows what appeals its audience most and makes a meal of it, factual fidelity gives way to tweaking here and there, like the bane which haunts the biopic genre, intentional simplification sours one’s appreciation. And if Gibson’s tactless direction isn’t worth much ovation, it is Bassett and Fishburne’s electrifying performances that truly matter, they are both nominated for an Oscar. For Fishburne, his Ike is like a tyrant without charisma, his musical talent is dwarfed by his outward meanness, it is a tricky, categorically objectionable role, yet, in Fishburne’s able hands, Ike isn’t merely a menacing-look monster (although the script makes him one), there is scant spark in his eyes, especially in the fictional confrontation scene where he pulls out his pistol, trying to earn an upper hand over the now liberated Tina, Fishburne has that stunning, almost transfixed look when he realizes that his browbeating pettiness can no longer intimidate Tina, Ike is licked, reduced to a pathetic fool, and that look alone makes him a human again, however remotely.
Bassett, lip-syncing and imitating Tina’s stage flourishes like nobody’s business, has that wondrous flair of a real trouper, barring looking dubious to portray a 16-year-old Tina in the beginning, she is a phenomenon. Her version of Tina is a steelier, more angular ball of fire, and you know she will fight back, look how sinewy Bassett is! When that moment comes, you cheer for her but also pain to see how sadomasochistic their relation turns. If she doesn’t leave, the vicious circle will destroy her. The mere fact that both her and Fishburne are still waiting for that elusive second Oscar nomination can only reveal how Hollywood has failed them.
TINA, the documentary, divided into 5 parts, has a more comprehensive examination of her life and is thoroughly pleasing, even uplifting when she finally rises above all the hurdles like a lotus, confident, resilient and blossoming, leaving her checkered past behind and letting go all the terror, rancor and regret, that is the story everyone should rave about. That said, it sounds a tad insincere for celebrities who claim to write their memoir as a cleansing therapy to bid adieu to those painful experiences, the truth is more likely, if that shit can sell, why not make some lucre out of it?
Interviewees are limited to a few true insiders, although no one can refuse Oprah waxing lyrical about Tina. The footage of Tina belting out her signature songs has that infectiously raw affection and bears out why Tina is a born superstar on stage, she pulls out all her emotion into her songs, energizes them without restraint, and where does her endless energy comes from? It also controverts the conception that she owes Ike for her career, because she can shine whenever and wherever, give that woman a stage, she is the queen, indomitable, irresistible and utterly genuine.