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Oscar-winning directors of Tina Turner documentary on doing justice to her story

"We didn’t necessarily need to make something that serviced the fans. We could actually be true to Tina’s narrative, and that was really liberating."
Illustration of Tina Turner
Elise Wrabetz / NBC News; Courtesy HBO

“Tina,” a new documentary about the rock superstar Tina Turner, tells a story in two acts. The first is a tragic portrait of childhood neglect, horrific spousal abuse and private suffering. The second is a joyous celebration of personal liberation, creative success and public adoration.

The film, which premieres March 27 on HBO, required a tonal balancing act for the Oscar-winning filmmakers Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin. They previously co-directed the documentaries “Undefeated” (2011), a moving look at an inner-city football team, and “LA 92” (2017), an insightful account of the Los Angeles riots drawn largely from archival footage.

Lindsay and Martin spent time interviewing Turner, who reflected on the long, often difficult process of reconciling the lows and highs of her life, from the abuse she suffered at the hands of ex-husband and former collaborator Ike Turner to the astonishing popularity she achieved in the 1980s as a solo artist — and one of the few Black women in rock music.

The documentary features interviews with actor Angela Bassett (who portrayed Turner in the 1993 film “What's Love Got to Do With It”); journalist Kurt Loder; playwright Katori Hall; Turner’s husband Erwin Bach; and Oprah Winfrey. The film also includes audio recordings of a 1981 People magazine interview in which Turner, who now lives in Switzerland, recounted her harrowing escape from Ike’s abuse.

“Tina” — and a Broadway musical about Turner’s life that opened just months before the pandemic shuttered theaters — has been billed as her farewell to public life. In a Zoom interview this week, Lindsay and Martin discussed feeling the responsibility to do justice to Turner’s story. Here are excerpts from that conversation, edited for length and clarity.

You co-directed films about football and the Los Angeles riots. What drew you to Tina Turner as a documentary subject?

Lindsay: We were somewhat reluctant to sign on to do this as our next film. We had been approached to do several celebrity biopics and music docs, and we always turned them down because — and this is going to sound so pretentious — we approach the documentary form as a means to create cinema. Oftentimes, music docs are a catalog of songs in search of a story.

But what Tina’s life story offers is a real journey, a real saga. It just so happens that the hero at the center is an iconic musical performer.

Simon Chin, the producer, had already made an agreement with Tina and her husband, Erwin, to do the documentary, and when he approached us to do it, we had those concerns. We were also concerned about two men taking the lead. But ultimately, talking with Tina and getting a better understanding of her life — especially her point of view on her own story — gave us direction.

Martin: We had immense respect for Tina Turner and we knew the broad strokes of her story, but we weren’t superfans by any means. It was very much as we dived in that we recognized we could make a proper film, and we didn’t necessarily need to make something that serviced the fans. We could actually be true to Tina’s narrative, and that was really liberating.

The film shows how Tina’s story of survival inspired millions of people. But it also explores how painful it was when reporters constantly asked her about domestic abuse instead of her solo career. How did you strike a balance between recognizing her trauma and celebrating her success?

Lindsay: It was difficult. How do we position ourselves so we aren’t doing the same thing? I think we were able to strike a balance by using archival materials to tell some of the disturbing stories of her life in more detail, using interviews she had already done so we didn’t need to ask her to go back and give us the minutiae of her life with Ike.

We gave her a sense of our point of view before we interviewed her, so she knew coming into it that we were going to cover the abuse but not ask her to recount specific details. We tried to tell her story in a way that was as respectful as possible — not exploitative, not sensationalized.

Martin: We learned in early conversations with Tina that the pain of her past is always lurking around the corner. She’ll say it herself. She doesn’t mind talking about it [the abuse], but she knows if she does, it comes back in dreams, which is a form of PTSD.

The narrative has always been that she’s “overcome” these things. But she is actively processing, and this is a lifelong journey of making a decision to wake up every day and decide she’s going to be a survivor.

Moderator R.J. Cutler, co-directors Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin attend a Los Angeles special screening of 'LA 92' at The London Hotel on Sept. 25, 2017 in West Hollywood, Calif.
Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin attend a 2017 screening of "LA 92" in West Hollywood, California.Tara Ziemba / Getty Images file

In the film, Tina’s husband says the documentary and the Broadway musical are meant to be her farewell to her American fans and, potentially, her public life. Is that a context you were aware of as you were making the film, and did you feel any heightened responsibility knowing this might be her goodbye?

Lindsay: “This is it. Don’t screw it up.” [Laughs.] It became more and more clear to us as we were going along.

In our interview with Tina, she said: “How do you bow out slowly, go away? I appreciate all this love for me, but I am done, I am tired, I just want to live in retirement.” We understood that desire, and I think as time went on, we realized what that actually meant.

But look, it’s Tina. Who knows, maybe in two years she’ll record a new album and play stadiums again. I think our sense is that she retired from the stage in 2009, and now doing the musical [and the film] was maybe a final way to say, “I also want to retire from being Tina Turner.”

It occurred to me that younger folks in their teens and 20s are probably not familiar with her body of work, certainly the music she recorded in the 1960s and '70s. What do you hope they take away from this film?

Martin: We thought a lot about that in making the film. I think an older generation has a sentiment of: “We already know the Ike days. We don’t need to rehash it.” But the younger generation has a clear palette. We wanted to make sure we were giving the full breadth of Tina Turner’s story so viewers arrived at a place of understanding.

The film has two big takeaways for me. The first is that for some people, the process of dealing with trauma is exactly that: a process. The second is in a totally different vein: the artistry of Tina Turner. The film isn’t populated by a bunch of musicians talking about how great she is, but we made sure we gave space to the performances.

The hope is that younger generations will watch this and appreciate how wholly unique she was as a performer, a choreographer and a vocalist. She was way, way ahead of her time.