Ferocious And Wild: A Tribute To Tina Turner In ‘Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome’
I could not presume to tell Tina Turner’s life better than she’s told it herself through a remarkable interview with People Magazine in 1981; a 1986 autobiography co-written with MTV’s Kurt Loder called I, Tina; through Brian Gibson’s well-regarded biopic What’s Love Got to Do With It? (1993) that credits Turner as co-writer; and most recently through Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s exceptional, intimate, excruciatingly frank, documentary Tina (2021). She said often she didn’t love living in the past and that if she had it to do over again, she wouldn’t. There were good parts, but the bad parts outweighed them and remained, as bad things do, painful. But questions continued to pop up about her trauma and so she kept telling her trauma, over and over in nightmarish, forced repetition. She freed herself in an act of great courage on one fateful Fourth of July and thought she could start fresh — but she was never really free. When you become a spokesperson for survival, the things that tried to kill you are your constant, uninvited, unwelcome companions. Other peoples’ struggle and recovery become your responsibility and all that love doesn’t really feel like love when it’s burdened by desperation and hunger.
I was a kid in the mid-1980s when Tina Turner was a supernova and I didn’t know anything about the horrors she had survived. I only knew she was everywhere. Michael Jackson’s Thriller album was in constant rotation and then, a couple years later, so was Turner’s Private Dancer, thanks largely to that LP’s anthemic hits “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” and “Better Be Good to Me.” Her rolling, vaguely Caribbean cover of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” was my introduction to the classic; her cover of David Bowie’s “1984” led me, after days of poring over the liner notes, to purchasing his Diamond Dogs album; and “Private Dancer” her “10 Cents a Dance” taxi-dancer song made me a lifelong Dire Straits fan. In the music video for “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” she’s wearing a fuck-you denim outfit, striding through the streets of New York on weaponized stilettos, fending off a gang of suitors after judging each of them not good enough. She didn’t fit the mold of beauty I had been fed by cultural expectation: instead of tall and lissome, she was compact and powerful; instead of blonde in her mid-twenties, she was Black in her mid-forties; instead of “like a virgin,” she was not like anything, she was a veteran of brutal and pernicious personal wars. She is the template for the megastardom of icons like Beyoncé (who recreated Turner’s “Proud Mary” choreography and performance for a Kennedy Center Honors tribute) and Serena Williams, and she rewired my preconceptions of my then 11-year-old self of what power and beauty could be in this country.
She began selling out arenas and I began buying up her amazing run of albums from previous decades. I was especially drawn to her live albums. Her energy leaps from the grooves like a thing made all of electricity and verve. She is galvanizing. I still can’t listen to her without moving my body. Watch her performing “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” in the Maysles brothers’ Gimme Shelter for just a little taste of it. On stage, she reminds me of some impossible combination of James Brown and Joe Cocker, so packed to the seams with the urgency of glorious noise that she seems animated by it, by the force of the spirit leaving her body. The last generation had Marlene Dietrich’s legs as among the most talked-about stems in the world, we had Tina Turner’s. Her body is her instrument and instrumental to her art and it seemed like cathartic relief for her to sing it out. Holding so much genius inside her was a torment that flesh could contain for only so long. She was all potential energy, a ball of kinetic fire.
In the middle of her time at the top of the world, she was cast in the third Mad Max film (Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome) and I was there on opening day. It is still my favorite of the four films — not for the remarkable stunt work that ends it, but for the depth of its world-building and its ambiguous villain, Turner’s Auntie Entity. In the “beforetime,” Turner’s character was underestimated, overlooked; her skills underutilized until the “pocky-pocalypse” when all the things of man were laid waste by his cupidity. It’s not hard to imagine that if only the masters of the universe had recognized their insufficiency before “nobodies” like Tina Turner, that everything might have turned out better for the planet. In this new world, though, Auntie Entity is the Queen, self-made, beholden to no one. From the first seconds of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, the opening credits looming on a black screen, Turner’s propulsive, Grammy-winning “One of the Living” — one of two songs Turner recorded for the film — announce who the center of this film will be. I didn’t know at the time, but Turner attempted suicide multiple times during the bad old days. When she sings here about the living envying the dead, about not wanting to fight but being forced into conflict, and about walking “tall, cool, collected and savage/Walk tall, bruised, sensual, ravaged… ferocious and wild” – well, it always meant something to me but I confess, now that I’m the veteran myself of a lifetime of ugly and personal wars, arriving at roughly the same age as she was when she performed it, it means something different.
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is about the human tendency to make myths. Its centerpiece is the gladiatorial cage, the Thunderdome, where combatants enter, affixed to bungee chords as rowdy crowds climb around on its outside, and forced to fight to the death. Its heart is a scene where a group of orphaned children, making a society for themselves in caves in the Australian desert, tell a creation story they’ve manufactured from fragments scavenged from a plane crash and part of an old Viewmaster set, itself a plastic, consumer-grade updating of old stereopticon gadgets. And its soul is Auntie Entity, unbowed and thriving in the ashes of the past, rising from a literal pit of pig shit to create a society bound by equitable trade and instant accountability. It was never nothing that the most powerful unifying force in George Miller’s post-apocalypse is a Black woman — and not the queen of a compost heap, but a creator of a civilization with self-sustaining electricity, water, and organizing principles. The only oasis for miles, Max (Mel Gibson), after being relieved of his possessions, joins a long procession of traders and merchants desiring entry into Entity’s Bartertown. “People come here to trade… you got nothing to trade, you got no business in Bartertown,” he’s told. But he has his body so he trades it for 24 hours in exchange for what he’s lost. When Turner started her career anew in 1984, she asked for and received only one thing from her previous life: her name. She was learning who she was. Her name was all she needed.
I remember her casting in this film felt like a stunt — a weird little cult antipodean franchise looking to find mainstream purchase in the United States on the back of a transcendent American pop star in ascendance. I remember feeling that way until her introduction in the film, serenaded by a blind saxophonist in her crow’s nest stronghold, standing behind a series of gray, diaphanous curtains while being told that some man has come offering his services for a day. Miller pushes his camera to the right and then in, mimicking our eye’s movement as it tries to catch her coming out from between a gap in the fabric. He pushes up to her, a little bit below to shoot her from a heroic low angle, and gives her a star’s introduction that feels very much like the push up to John Wayne in Stagecoach. “But he’s just a raggedy man” she says, bemused.
It’s the most castrating first line I can remember, even as a student of film noir’s golden age where lines like that were more common but seldom delivered as perfectly dismissively. (Maybe Princess Leia’s smoky “Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?”) Auntie sizes Max up, asks him a few questions about his background. “How the world turns. One day the cock of the walk, the next a feather duster.” She tells him she was nobody, but she survived and in the surviving she found she had the chance to be somebody. I think one of the hardest lessons one learns in this life, should they survive the audition, is that the only real, and the greatest, victory is to live. Live. You can’t close the circles you are meant to close if you aren’t there to close them. Turner is a natural performer and this role, these lines, are delivered with the kind of emotional precision that comes from hard-won experience. “So much for history,” says Auntie. She doesn’t like to live in the past.
“Look around you, all this I built, up to my armpits in blood and shit,” she says, “where there was despair, now there’s hope.” The Thunderdome sequence actually happens early in the film, within the first thirty minutes of a 106-minute picture. Max has been enlisted by Auntie to kill Blaster (Paul Larsson), the muscle behind upstart Master (Angelo Rossitto) who, as governor of the town’s power supply, is becoming difficult to manage. Auntie isn’t sentimental about hiring out his murder, but she is aware of the political implications of appearing weak so she does it this way, with an outsider and on the sly. When Max shows mercy, Miller zooms in on Auntie’s displeasure and it’s formidable. Her uniform is a chainmail doublet, traditionally a man’s garment common from the Middle Ages through the mid-17th century, modified here as armor with exaggerated shoulder pads and accented with giant hoop earrings made of multiple metal rings. Its shape reminds me a lot of Barbara Stanwyck’s gown, the one she’s wearing in her first scene in Double Indemnity. One could make the case Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is a noir — the story of a man home from war taking a bad deal from a powerful woman that doesn’t end well for either of them. The man who, after all, is only driven by greed and the restoration of a system that favors him. The woman, on the other hand, is driven by survival.
Max is exiled to the desert, saved by a monkey, taken in by the band of mythmaking orphans. Where Auntie Entity has endeavored to preserve human history through the perpetuation of the broad tenets of its civilization, these children have sought to preserve it through the creation of the stories we’ve always told one another in dark caves around flickering lights. There’s a scene similar to this in the grossly underestimated Reign of Fire (2002), serving a similar twofold purpose: to present storytelling as the main way man has persisted; and to highlight film as the medium that most closely approximates the conditions and impact of how we have evolved, biologically, to receive our stories. The orphans are also lead by a woman, Savannah Nix (Helen Buday) who, convinced Max is the leader who will take them to a city they have glimpsed inside a toy designed around an early principle of filmmaking, must convince a reluctant Max to become that leader. He is, in other words, at the mercy of two powerful women in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. (Fascinatingly, in the next film, Mad Max: Fury Road, he finds himself at the mercy of a third.) Absent for the middle portion of the film, Auntie Entity returns for the conclusion, a chase/escape across the desert as Max endeavors to free Master from Bartertown. There is an interlude here before the fireworks detonate in which two orphans discover an old phonograph — another of the film’s nods to modes of storytelling. Max shows them how to use it by playing a battered, warped Learn to Speak French vinyl and it teaches the children how to say “I’m going home.”
Auntie arrives a few minutes into the chase and, far from declining, leads the assault on the rail car that is the orphans’, and Master’s, means of delivery. She climbs to it from her rocket-powered sidecar, engages in hand-to-hand combat. She’s a warrior and she leads from the front. At the end, Max is at the mercy of Auntie, having sacrificed his own freedom for those in his charge. “Well, ain’t we a pair, raggedy man?” she laughs and strides away, poses for a second against the skyline and the smoldering wreckage of the the last thirty minutes of one of the best chase sequences ever committed to film. She is not only Max’s equal in a film named after him, she at least has a place to call her own. She gets a dream of an exit line: “goodbye soldier,” she says, and tosses her chainmail skirt in a flourish only someone who has worn outfits like this in thousands of shows in every conceivable venue could manage with that kind of indomitable moxie, and mounts her ride back to the world she’s created.
I wonder if her costume design wasn’t a callout to her stage wardrobe. She performed “Proud Mary,” the CCR song she essentially made her own, on The Ed Sullivan Show in January of 1970 on a clip widely disseminated after her death at 83 on Wednesday, May 24, 2023. She’s wearing a gold mini-dress composed entirely of tassels, and the life she gives to this outfit is the very same life she gives Auntie Entity’s insouciant exit from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. You can’t teach that. You only earn that kind of might.
Tina Turner said once how she admired people like Lucille Ball and Loretta Young but “I wasn’t pretty, I didn’t have the clothes, I didn’t have the means.” I don’t know if she ever fully understood the swath she cut through expectation and precedent: a middle-aged Black woman as one of the undeniable sex symbols for an entire generation, motivated by a perpetual motion machine that didn’t seem like it would ever dim. She cleaved across every boundary. She was an icon for survivors, revolutionaries, flyovers and Bible belters and everyone who could see in her what Janelle Monae sang once, in a song that opens with a clip of Martin Luther King’s “Dream” speech: “I am not America’s nightmare, I am the American dream.”
In 1985, the year of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Turner’s manager asked an employee, Erwin Bach, to pick her up at the Dusseldorf airport. In Lindsay and Martin’s Tina documentary she remembers “he was younger, he was thirty years old at the time… the prettiest face. I mean, you cannot.. I said ‘where did he come from?’ My heart went b-boom! and it means that a soul has met.” It’s one of the only times during a painful interview where she’s joyous. Radiant. “My hands were shaking… when he found out I liked him, he came to America… I said to him ‘when you come to LA, I want you to make love to me.’” Tina laughs here during her recollection of these moments where she found the love of her life and made sure not to let it get away. “I needed love. I needed to love a person.” Twenty-seven dating years later, they married and retreated to Zurich where she died, beloved with her beloved. She credited Bach for allowing her to “love without giving up who I am.” I think the test of greatness is how wide a wake you leave in your passing. The world is less today than it was yesterday.
Walter Chaw is the Senior Film Critic for filmfreakcentral.net. His book on the films of Walter Hill, with introduction by James Ellroy, is now available.