Tina Turner’s is a quintessential survivor’s tale: An abused wife and mother—who also happens to front a successful r&b-rock band—bears the unbearable as she works up the courage to leave her situation with Ike and make it solo. It’s delicious material for a musical, and with Tina’s frequent nods to autobiography in her songs, it could all too easily have been one of the juke variety.
Director Gabrielle Lansner had different aspirations, though, with River Deep. She’s cobbled a highly selective and impressionistic overview of Turner’s life and career, expressed in roughly equal thirds unrhythmic monologues, frug-friendly tunes, and impassioned dancing. The latter steals the show, with maelstroms of shimmy and swim moves in blurs of spangled sequin. If you’ve seen the way the real Tina and the Ikettes did “Proud Mary,” you know the routine. But there’s less Proud Mary here than at your typical Cracker Barrel. Tina’s actual body of work is eschewed for Philip Hamilton’s score, which evokes—that is, mimics—spirited Ike-penned hits like “A Fool in Love.” The decision not to use Tina’s known songs in paying tribute, whether born of unwillingness or inability to license them, reeks of cheapness. Nevertheless, Pat Hall as Tina does her best with the material, bringing a quiet fire (and impressive musculature) to a role and a project that, like Ike and Tina’s songs, are as incomplete as they are energized.