It seems quaint to say Tina Turner, born Anna Mae Bullock, is a rock ‘n roll legend. But in light of her recent passing, it’s important to commemorate her in every way possible. No language feels like enough to describe the length of her talent, the strength of her voice, and the magnitude of her very presence. On stage, Turner was sexy, cool, free, and yet disciplined. She moved her body with a controlled manic energy, breaking free and pulling back fluidly. There’s a narrative arc to her performance: start slow and build up, leading to the payoff moment when she lets loose and allows the audience to join her in catharsis. It often felt like Turner was getting her demons out, putting it all out there on stage without sparing a moment to wallow.
However, Turner was more than a musician. She was also an actress, appearing in films sporadically throughout the decades of her life, and achieving a dream she wanted ever since she was a child.
“It was my wish from the beginning,” Turner said in a 1985 interview. “I’ve been singing all my life. So, that wasn’t something to be desired — to get onstage and sing — as much as coming from the movies and acting the parts out for my grandmother and my mother. From the very start of [being] a little girl, I wanted to act. I was always sitting pretending the camera was there.”
Though her roles are few, her craft as an actress demands recognition. First, she appeared as herself in films like The Big T.N.T. Show, It’s Your Thing, Gimme Shelter, Soul to Soul, Taking Off, and Good Vibrations from Central Park throughout the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Of these, Taking Off is the only narrative entry among the various documentary concert films. In it, Turner performs with her then-husband Ike in a hotel. For much of Hollywood’s history at this point, Black performers were most often seen in white films entertaining an audience.
All the while, Black filmmakers and actors were carving out spaces for themselves in and out of Hollywood beyond their entertainment value to white audiences. As cinema moved into the ‘70s, there were more opportunities for Black artists to star in a variety of cinematic works. Still, even during the rise of Blaxploitation heroines, it was difficult for Black women to truly hold the spotlight. Black cinema has always favored the male perspective, and Black women have often had to get creative in order to play larger, more interesting, and dynamic roles. By the time Turner did play a significant role in a film, it was in 1975.
In the psychedelic rock musical Tommy, Turner plays a fascinating figure known as The Acid Queen. The film, directed by notoriously controversial auteur Ken Russell, is based on The Who’s 1969 rock opera album of the same name, and boasts a cast that includes Elton John, Jack Nicholson, Eric Clapton, Ann-Margaret, and Oliver Reed. The film tells the story of a young man (played by The Who’s lead singer Roger Daltrey) who has been rendered deaf, dumb, and blind after a traumatic event from his childhood. At first, his mother (Ann-Margeret) and her lover (Reed) try to “cure” Tommy (Daltrey) of his psychosomatic disabilities. One such effort is bringing Tommy to The Acid Queen (Turner) in hopes that her drugs will snap him out of it. Though she only appears in one musical sequence, Turner makes an impression. With her wavy auburn hair, fire engine red lipstick and cape, she looks like a rock ‘n roll witch. Stretching her face and letting her eyes go wild, Turner is fully unleashed, giving a frantic performance that blends perfectly with Russell’s hypnotic imagery.
The year after Tommy was released, Turner left Ike and began the painful process of untangling her life and career from his. Although she got to keep her stage name, she essentially had to start over from scratch. The only narrative film in which she appeared during that time was the 1978 comedy jukebox musical, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, in a small cameo at the end among many other celebrities. She continued to perform, working toward her own creative and professional independence. The Acid Queen was Turner at her most free at the time, but it would take a decade before she had fully reintroduced herself to the public on the big screen.
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, directed by George Miller and George Ogilvie, is the third film in the decades-spanning Mad Max series. But more notably, it was Turner’s biggest role, allowing her to fully flex her star power for perhaps the first time. In 1985, this role was more than just a comeback. It was a rebirth for Turner, who had broken away from her abusive marriage and carved out a place for herself in music where she could proudly stand alone. For this reason, her performance as Aunty Entity in the film feels like a victory lap. “But he’s just a raggedy man,” she says during one of her many notable moments in the movie, looking at Max (Mel Gibson) with an amused look on her face. As she stands in front of him in the garments of a warrior queen with long blonde flowing locks, she introduces herself. “Do you know who I was? Nobody. Except on the day after. I was still alive. This nobody had a chance to be somebody.” Watching Turner speak these words, one can’t help but think about what it took for her to get there.
Going into the ‘90s, Turner would have her life story turned into a biopic, as well as offer her last appearance in a feature film in 1993. In June came the release of What’s Love Got to Do With It, the Tina Turner movie that told the harrowing story of her abuse at the hands of her ex-husband Ike. The film follows the trajectory of many Hollywood biopics, focusing on struggle and pain, with Angela Bassett giving a career-defining performance portraying Turner. (Although Turner doesn’t appear in the film her presence can still be felt, having provided Bassett’s singing voice). As Tina, Angela Bassett is at first sweet, eager, and hopeful. But over time, as her abuse at the hands of Ike (Laurence Fishburne) worsens, she becomes harder, losing some of that early softness. The film itself can often feel punishing, making Turner look passive in her life and career. In a 1993 interview with Vanity Fair, Turner seemed to agree, pointedly saying: “Maybe I was a victim for a short while. But give me credit for thinking the whole time I was there. See, I do have pride.” Though the weaknesses of the film are mainly due to the script simplifying complicated relationship dynamics and events, it’s difficult to look at Bassett’s performance and see the parts of Turner that she seemed to so desperately want the world to know. That same month came the release of Last Action Hero, the Arnold Schwarzenegger-led fantasy action comedy where Turner played the mayor of Los Angeles. Although a brief cameo, Turner positions herself as the woman in charge, with the comedic sequence that follows adding to the movie’s charm.
In the opening voiceover for the 2021 documentaryTina, Turner spoke of her past as a narrative that was thrust upon her. “I just really don’t want to play the part, you know what I mean?” she said. “It was just so unlike me, my life, that I don’t want anyone to know about it.” She continues: “It wasn’t a good life. It was in some areas, but the goodness did not balance the bad. You don’t like to pull out old clothes, you know?” Turner did not want her pain to overshadow her triumph. She wanted to be remembered as a survivor and phoenix rising from the ashes, demanding to be seen on her own terms, and her appearances on the big screen helped with that.
Jourdain Searles is a writer, comedian, and podcaster who hails from Georgia and resides in Queens. She has written for Bitch Media, Thrillist, The Ringer, and MTV News. As a comic, she has performed stand-up in venues all over New York City, including Union Hall, The People Improv’s Theater, UCB East, and The Creek and the Cave.
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