TJ Martin’s latest documentary, Tina, has become the most-watched documentary yet on HBO Max. An intimate account of the life of music icon and legendary performer Tina Turner, Tina shows how Turner continues to fight to gain control over her story. It’s received widespread critical praise and deeply resonated with audiences. And for Martin, the connections get personal.

TJ Martin
TJ Martin
Martin first made national headlines when he won an Oscar for his and director Daniel Lindsay’s 2011 documentary Undefeated, which profiled a high school football team in Memphis. With his win, he became the first director of African-American descent to win for a feature-length film. The Stranger wrote about his win in 2012, noting that Obama had ordered the film to be screened in the White House.

Martin and Lindsay continued to make exceptional pieces of work, including the arresting documentary LA 92, which earned an Emmy for documentary filmmaking.

The duo’s newest documentary, Tina, is no less of an achievement, pushing viewers to decouple their beliefs about Turner’s life. Spanning more than six decades, it’s epic in scale but focused on an emotional core.

Tina and The Ikettes
Tina and The Ikettes Courtesy HBO

Tina Turner had to fight from an early age—one of her foremost obstacles being Ike Turner, her former musical partner, manager, and husband. An abuser and manipulator, Ike would become a torturous force in her life. The documentary discusses the impacts of his abuse and how Turner has spent nearly her whole career working to repair his damage. It is harrowing and honest, a balance Martin said he worked hard to find.

Martin now lives in Los Angeles, though he was born in Seattle and is forever tied to the city’s history through his late mother: Tina Bell. (Yes, another Tina.)

Tina Bell was a talented musician who started the group Bam Bam with Tommy Martin, TJ’s father. Bam Bam was a revolutionary Seattle grunge band that remains a core part of the area’s music history. The shared first name and love of music is something Martin says was in the front of his mind when making Tina.

“Oh 100 percent, how could it not?” Martin told me over a video call with a chuckle. “To make matters even more interesting, my mom’s story has been getting a little bit more attention.”

Martin highlighted KEXP’s recent retrospective on Bam Bam on their Sound & Vision podcast, titled: “Tina Bell: Unsung Goddess of Grunge.” The episode explored the band’s unshakeable impact on Seattle and how Martin’s mother was a leading force in creating a grunge band before the genre had broken out.

That podcast is just one of many pieces that revisit and give long-overdue credit to the legacy of Tina Bell, the “Black woman who created the sound of grunge.”

Bell did not live long enough to see the resurgence of interest around her work, passing away in 2012. Her legacy now lives on not just through her work but through her son’s filmmaking. Martin says he’s considering how to tell his mother’s story.

“I am still at the edge of the cliff, but I’m considering a story on my mom,” Martin said. “I’d have to prep myself emotionally for that deep dive in thinking about doing a scripted version. We’ll see.”

Strangely, it was through his mother's treatment when he was a child that Martin first became aware of who Tina Turner was.

“It was kind of surreal. My relationship with Tina Turner was unique in the sense that my early association with her is through people, like men on the street, hitting on my mom—not because they knew who she was but because she has a rock aesthetic,” Martin said. “They would say, ‘Hey Tina—Tina Turner!’ That was the only other Black woman in rock they could associate her with.”

“So as a kid, I’d literally see strangers hit on my mom and call her Tina Turner. Thus she became like a nemesis in our household and that was my introduction to Tina Turner. Then I realized that Tina Turner has her own incredible narrative that is just admirable in so many ways.”

Tina Turner in Tina
Tina Turner in Tina Courtesy HBO

Martin said he got the chance to share part of this connection with Turner herself after she invited the documentary team out to dinner toward the end of making the film.

“She started asking us about our families and our lives,” Martin said. “I never was able to tell that full story, but right when we ordered dinner, I was like, ‘You know, my mom was a vocalist and her name was Tina.’ It totally grabbed her attention… and then our food arrived, then the conversation totally changed. We never got to fully follow up on it.”

Bam Bam was one of those groups that never got the recognition its talents cried out for. Often referred to as the “band that should have been,” their music still lives on in those who experienced it.

“My parents were very different people. My mom internalized her struggles and her pains. My dad projected his struggles and his pains. She didn’t spend much time talking about the difficulties of the perception of who she was when she was with the band,” Martin said. “My dad spent the remainder of his life talking about how they didn’t get the right recognition that they deserved.”

As more retrospectives have come out about Bam Bam, Martin has learned more about his parents' impact, including the history of hate his mother had to fight. One recent story recounts how she used a microphone like a lasso to split open the head of a skinhead who called her a racial slur from the audience.

“I’m now realizing very much that, similar to Tina Turner, the racism that they experienced within our society is the same thing. In both of their cases, my mom and Tina Turner, the sexism and the racism that you experience within the music industry,” Martin said.

Martin wants it to be clear that Turner’s story is very much her own and one he set out to make with her specific life as the focus. He says the personal connections others have found in Tina means to him that he succeeded at subverting narrative cliché.

“Specificity kills cliché,” Martin told me. “If you can be more specific and be more honest about Tina Turner’s experience, then all of a sudden, it becomes universal. People can extrapolate and identify facets of their own narrative with this particular narrative.”

As for how his most recent project is connecting with an audience, Martin said he hopes to see Tina with a crowd one day. He completed the project in quarantine and never got the chance to see it with a packed house. He hopes to book a possible return and screening in Seattle, where his family's musical legacy still echoes throughout the city.