The Legend of Tina Turner – The New Yorker

Posted: November 11, 2019 at 7:43 pm


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Toward the start of a 1993 recording of Proud Mary, Tina Turnerwho, by then, had been performing the number for decades, across the globegives a charismatic, gently teasing forecast of the song to come.

Were gonna take the beginning of this song and do it easy. But then were gonna do the finish rough, she says. Thats the way we do Proud Mary. Her voice, sharp and feline and cunning, rushes forward, tossing each syllable into a fast-moving current, until she stops to hold a choice wordeasy; roughup to the warm light of her attention. Her diction, in its variance, mirrors what shes disclosing about the song. Somehow the road map does nothing to dissipate the impact of the moment when the rolling thrum of guitars that dominates the first half of Proud Mary gives way to horns blasting out that melodic line, and the mental image of Turner spinning in tight circles, wig ablur, arms tutted out like twin cranes, tassels floating away from her body, arrives. What we lose in tonal and rhythmic suspense we gain in a more primal kind of anticipation. Yes, it will get rough, eventuallybut when, and just how rough?

A similar thing happens when we hear Turners life story. Most of us know it in its broadest contours. Born Anna Mae Bullock, as a child she picked cotton on her familys sharecropping farm, in Nutbush, Tennessee, and pined for her mother, who fled Turners abusive father. In the first two decades of her career, her success was linked inextricably with her musical partner and husband, who physically abused her. The question, when the story is being told onscreen or onstage, is never whether these vicissitudes will be included but how brutally, and to what representational end.

Even when Turners music is part, or most, of the promised packageas it is in Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, up now at the Lunt-Fontanne, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, with a book by Katori Hall, Frank Ketelaar, and Kees Prins, and with seriously impressive choreography by Anthony Van Laastits her life that delivers the dramatic shape expected from art: tension and release, fall and climb, pain and possibility. This makes Turner perhaps singular among pop artists. Usually we have to employ a kind of textualismcombing lyrics and gestures for a corollary in realityto assign to our stars moral, cultural, and political values. Or an artist makes bold-sounding declarations, or endorses electoral candidates, or embraces high-profile causes. With Turner, even given all the innovation found in her records, the triumph is located in the life; her status as a feminist hero is stubbornly extramusicalit lives somewhere much past art, and beyond statements.

Its a paradox, then, that it was a pop-cultural representationthe 1993 movie Whats Love Got to Do with It, starring Angela Bassett as Turnerthat made Turners political importance clear to generations too young to have tracked her entire career, and made her iconography complete. For more than two decades, Bassett, whose performance as Turner is perhaps the most brilliant and haunting of her career, has dominated the collective imagination with respect to Turner, and, in many ways, has made Tina Turners art a mere corollary to Anna Mae Bullocks life. Turners most famous songsProud Mary, Whats Love Got to Do with It, Simply the Bestnow sound to my ears like autobiographical anthems, meant as a score instead of a corpus of their own.

The great benefit of this situation is clear: we learn from lives, and every saint needs a story. But, because Turners canonization has proceeded within the limits of commercial entertainment, her life often seems at risk of being objectified in the way that can happen with a song, or a scene from a blockbuster. Whenever I hear the rapper Jay-Z, in a guest verse on a song by his wife, Beyonc, flippantly drone, Eat the cake, Anna Maea line from Whats Love Got to Do with It that comes during one of the movies most humiliatingly violent momentsI recoil. I wonder if the magic of the moviesthe semi-permanent stamp that some pictures make on the mindmight chip away at Turners hard-earned gravitas, just as surely as, initially, it helped build her myth.

Tina, a genuinely entertaining jukebox musical with some trouble at its edges, has this odd, precariously balanced mixture of life and art, politics and spectacle, as its burden. Maybe its creators were wise, then, to organize the story around Turners religious experienceher childhood in the rural black church, her turn to a lifelong, cherished Buddhism. The show opens with a temporal swirl: the adult Tina (Adrienne Warren) sits wearing a Corvette-red leather dress, her back to the crowd, rasping out a mantra, as her very young counterpart (a charming Skye Dakota Turner, no relation to Tina) sits through a jubilant musical number at church, unable to restrain her voice, despite the chiding of her mother. Skye Dakota Turner is a wonderfully vivid performer; theres humor in every facial move and bodily gesture, and she sings with precocious, echoing focus, like a bird perched on a cathedrals upper balcony.

That opening image, whose surrealism gives way to a more or less straightforward, chronological slide down the time line of Tina Turners life, feels like an attempt to reunify Turner and her work, and to give a hint as to their source. Some soul-deep fountain produced both. Tina grows up, and Warren, a powerful singer and song interpreter whose reputation deserves to grow after this performance, takes over. She gives little glimmers of impersonation, especially when she sings, but mostly avoids distracting mimicry.

The trouble comes when this musicals version of Anna Mae Bullock meets this musicals version of Ike Turner (Daniel J.Watts). The real Ike Turners very namethrough a pop-cultural process not unlike the one that turned Tinas into an emblem of long-suffering resilienceis now almost synonymous with cowardly violence and petty bullying; his pioneering role in the development of rock and roll has been all but eclipsed by his notoriety as a sadist. Nobody mentions Ike and means to refer to the Fender bass named for him. But here, somehow, likely because Warren is so good, and because the songsmostly note-for-note renderings of the well-known recordingskeep on coming, Ike comes off more as a comic buffoon than as a real menace. I dont think this is due to any odd intent on behalf of the shows producers but, rather, to the distorting imperatives of mass entertainmenttell the story, but keep it light.

Everybody knows, even before he shows up, that Ike is the villain in the Tina Turner story. On Broadway, under what looks like a thousand lights, in front of a crowd impatient to cheer, this makes him a chintzy Big Bad Wolf. Then, too, Watts, the poor actor tasked with this role, has an irremediably friendly face and funny aspect. From afar, he looks and moves a bit like Eddie Murphy, and, when I saw the show, he sometimes, at the most despicable moments, garnered what seemed to be accidental laughs.

For the most part, the show is fun. The songs sound good, and nobodys high opinion of Tina Turner will be negatively affected. Very much to the contrary, Warrens performance, which sometimes veers happily into an outright concert, is a two-and-a-half-hour-long hosanna. But I couldnt help hoping that, in the long run, Turner will be given her true due, her personal history plumbed for its deepest applications. This great theatrical rendering of her life might come only when living memory of Turner as an entertainer has faded, and her bright intensity as an archetype can shine through, unhindered by obligatory applause. The mood will be classical. Nobody will think to hope for a good time.

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The Legend of Tina Turner - The New Yorker

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November 11th, 2019 at 7:43 pm