Television

Tina Turner's Powerhouse Career Recounted in HBO Documentary

Also: Cancel culture knives are out for The United States of Al. It doesn’t deserve them.

|

  • Tina. HBO. Saturday, March 27, 8 p.m.
  • The United States of Al. CBS. Thursday, April 1, 9:30 p.m.

Tina Turner has spent the last 40 years of her life trying to be done with the behind-the-music fable of the nearly two decades she spent as her husband Ike's punching bag. With HBO's authorized documentary Tina, she's failed again. Ike is still there, blackening her eyes, whipping her with clothes hangers, hammering her with his fists as a prelude to sex.

But Tina offers much more than a retread. No TV show or movie has ever put together a more torrid collection of clips of Tina on stage: whirling, spinning, leaping, frantically cavorting like Mick Jagger before Mick Jagger existed, glistening with sweat and sexuality, while crying out in a banshee voice that seems equally capable of calling God or Satan. A montage of TV appearances in which Tina performs Phil Spector's stirring masterpiece "River Deep – Mountain High" is probably the most insanely thrilling bit of rock and roll ever committed to film, the very definition of the phrase "You rock!"

Tina's tale is by now a familiar one, related in epic detail in the book I, Tina (co-authored by Reason film critic Kurt Loder in a previous existence) and the film it spawned, What's Love Got to Do with It: her lonely childhood in a home headed by ferociously violent parents who deserted her at a young age; her professional break when the scuffling R&B maestro Ike Turner (who arguably invented rock'n'roll) wearily gave in to her pleas and let her sing one from the audience; her years in the electrifying but little-known Ike & Tina Turner Revue, doing four shows a night, eight months a year, on the chitlin' circuit under the direction of the increasingly brutal Ike.

The breakout moment for the band came in 1966 when Spector signed Tina and (a mostly absentee) Ike to cut "River Deep — Mountain High" in front of the famed Los Angeles session players known as the Wrecking Crew. The record unaccountably flopped (and sent Spector into a deep psychological spiral from which he never really recovered). But to hear Turner's voice soaring over Spector's monstrous Wall of Sound production was a revelation. "That was so big," she muses in an interview for Tina, "and I sounded so different."

It took five years, but Ike and Turner finally scored a bonafide hit with a zapped-up cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Proud Mary." That proved disastrous for Tina. Ike used the royalties to open his own studio along with bankrolling a prodigious drug habit, running up bills that could only be paid with an even more intense touring schedule and even more savage pummeling of Tina. After a final beatdown during a Dallas cab ride, she disappeared into the night on foot with a gasoline credit card and 36 cents.

The first half of Tina is devoted to the Ike and Tina years, a story she says she never wanted to tell and would love never to repeat again. Her two big reveals—a confessional 1981 interview with People magazine, and her book deal with Loder—were both intended to put the Ike years behind her: the People interview to assure record companies that she was on her own, the book in hopes that journalists would finally let the story go.

The latter was spectacularly unsuccessful; nothing written or produced about her—certainly including Tina—has ever failed to dwell her hellish years with Ike. Now, as her story nears its end—the 81-year-old Tina hasn't toured in a decade or recorded in two—she concedes it couldn't have been done any other way. "It wasn't a good life," she says of the years before she escaped. "I was living a life of death. I didn't exist."

Veteran documentary directors T.J. Martin and Daniel Lindsay did their own interviews with Tina but also got access to a number from the archives, including tapes from both the People magazine and Loder interviews. There's a vivid contrast in her tone over the years. In the People interview, before her story was well known, she's almost combative in her insistence that she was married to a vicious son of a bitch. As the years go by, her words mellow, though the details of what happened to her never do.

Nor does her explanation of why she stayed 18 years with a man who savagely abused her. Ike, scarred by years of ripoffs and betrayals on the chitlin' circuit (including, most notably, being robbed of the credit for his seminal rock'n'roll record Rocket 88), was in the early days obsessed with the idea that she would make a reputation with his band and then leave him. "I promised that I wouldn't leave him," she says. "And in those days, a promise was a promise."

PS: I've implied that, however spectacular its archival footage, there's not much new in the details of Tina. There's one notable exception. It turns out that Tina's ironic comeback hit "What's Love Got to Do with It" was actually recorded first by a British group called Bucks Fizz, a sort of blandified version of ABBA. Life spoiler alert: If you click on this link, you'll never be able to unhear it.

"United States of Al"

Meanwhile, in a dispatch from the frontlines of cancel culture, social justice warriors are campaigning for the summary execution of the new CBS sitcom The United States of Al. Created and written by David Goetsch and Maria Ferrari and executive-produced by Chuck Lorre, their boss for many years on The Big Bang TheoryAl is about a Marine back from Afghanistan who browbeats the State Department into giving a visa to the Afghan who served as his unit's Pashto translator.

Hardly any members of the of the lynch mob that's chasing Al has actually seen the show. Their open-and-shut case against it is that the translator is played by Adhir Kalyan, an ethnic Indian from South Africa. To put it more succinctly, Kalyan is not an Afghan. No matter that this didn't seem to matter to anybody when he played a Pakistani teenager in The CW's charming immigration comedy Aliens in America. No matter that there are four other certified grade-A Afghans in the cast. And especially no matter that no one ever complained that HBO didn't hire an actual Baltimore ghetto narcotrafficker to play the murderous heroin merchant in The Wire, but instead not only employed a Brit, Idris Elba, one of dozens of racist British carpetbaggers to take roles in which they inauthentically portray Americans.

I, however, have actually watched Al and can tell you it's a sharply written comedy of the culture clash that results from an Afghan tribesman who finds himself suddenly plunked down in suburban Ohio. "Why do you people invade other countries when you can just stay here and eat?" he wonders after his first bedazzled visit to an American supermarket where he tries to haggle with the checkout clerk.

While the first couple of episodes of Al are mostly purely comical, there are hints of darker moments to come. Al's ex-Marine host Riley (Parker Young, Suburgatory) shows troubling signs of PTSD. And Riley's sister Lizzie (Elizabeth Alderfer,  A.P. Bio) seems anything but recovered from the combat death of her boyfriend in Afghanistan. Al is not exactly Friends—in particular, it sometimes worries a joke to death—but that's not unusual for a new series. With a talented cast and writing staff and a truly original premise, it might really turn into something exceptional—if the American Taliban doesn't put it to death first.