Tina Turner, 1939 – 2023

I believe it’s largely forgotten that the ending of What’s Love Got to Do with It, the 1993 drama in which Angela Bassett portrayed music icon Tina Turner, was controversial at the time of the film’s release. Following nearly two hours of Bassett’s fierce, compelling acting, playing out both the miseries and triumphs of Turner’s life, director Brian Turner chose to close the biopic by cutting to footage of Turner herself performing live in concert. Seeing the film for a the first time, the sudden appearance of the real Turner on screen was a jarring reminder that everything that preceded her striding into view was mere fictionalization. No matter how utterly commanding Bassett was, and she’s amazing as Turner, she simply couldn’t compare to the immediate magnetism and ferocious presence of the genuine article.

The movie was based on Turner’s 1986 autobiography, I, Tina, co-written with then Rolling Stone scribe and future MTV News stalwart Kurt Loder. That book was a bestseller and essentially represented a capper on one of the most remarkable comeback stories in pop music history. Or maybe it was less of a comeback and more of an even rarer example of persevering through grotesque levels of personal abuse and showbiz indifference to become a more dominant figure than any of the cads who impeded her progress, who tried to dim her blazing light. Literally without a single dollar in her possession when she freed herself from a torturously cruel man, in 1976, Turner spent several years scraping together low-paying gigs in minor venues to keep herself afloat. She released a couple solo albums, but they didn’t sell. She sang the hell out of an old Temptations song as guest vocalist with an act that was essentially a Heaven 17 side project, and it was treated as a curiosity more than what it was really was, a promise that she still had so much more to offer. A couple years after that track, everything changed.

It’s hard to overstate how thoroughly the single “What’s Love Got to Do with It” wrenched control of the culture in the middle of 1984. Released as the first single from the album Private Dancer, the song instantaneously felt like a sort of destiny, like it had always been there, just waiting for everyone to notice and pay its singer her due. Turner didn’t even like the song when she first heard it, but a better vehicle for her reintroduction and overdue ascendancy is unimaginable. The cynicism about romance (“Who needs a heart when a heart can be broken?”) and implied declaration of independence (“I’ve been takin’ on a new direction”) are perfectly aligned with her own story, and Turner invests every word with maximum emotion. It was a smash, logging three weeks at the top of the Billboard charts. Turner was forty-four years old at the time, making her the oldest female solo artist to top that U.S. pop charts to that point.

There were eight more Top 40 hits in the span in the three years that followed, not to mention a starring role in a big summer movie. In 1988, she played a concert for an estimate 180,000 people in Rio De Janeiro, which set a record for the biggest paying crowd for a single show. Officially, the officially numbers finally represented the truth that was always there: She was a superstar.

Years later, Turner was interviewed by CBS News at her lavish estate, located in Southern France. After surveying some of the more extravagant trappings, reporter Mike Wallace asked, “You feel like you deserve all this?”

“I deserve more,” she said with a laugh.

That was the truth. Few people earned their legendary status quite as clearly as Turner did. She was great, unquestionably so.

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