Tina Turner (Photo by Deborah Feingold/Corbis via Getty Images)
Tina Turner (Photo by Deborah Feingold/Corbis via Getty Images)

She Wants Her MTV: How ‘Private Dancer’ Made Tina Turner a Video Queen

In this PopMatters exclusive, the directors, choreographers, and dancers behind Tina Turner’s platinum-selling Private Dancer video 45 recall how the Queen of Rock went from MTV to number one.

“Better Be Good to Me”

Tina Turner was still on the road with Lionel Richie when she arrived at the Beverly Theater in July 1984 to shoot her next video for Private Dancer. She traded her denim jacket and mini-skirt from “What’s Love Got to Do With It” for a black leather ensemble that became synonymous with the formidable persona she created on “Better Be Good to Me”. Director Brian Grant would immortalize that look in the first of two videos he shot with Turner for the album.

Hardly four months had passed since Turner recorded “Better Be Good to Me” and “I Might Have Been Queen” with producer Rupert Hine, who’d recently helmed the Top Five hit “One Thing Leads to Another” for the Fixx. “We were in the middle of recording our third studio album with Rupert,” says Fixx frontman Cy Curnin. “He got the call from Roger Davies. Would he like to do these two songs? We broke our session at the studio, but it was a residential studio. Tina came in for a week to do these songs. She had a strong presence. I was a little nervous about meeting someone so iconic. I guess when you meet someone that you think is a huge star, you think of them as being twelve-foot tall, but she turned out to be so Zen-like, so sweet and very calm.

“We were so enamored with her. As a kid, my sister was a big American music fan. She was four-and-a-half years older than me. She was buying singles when she was twelve. I would recognize the singles she bought when they would be playing on the radio. I remember ‘River Deep-Mountain High’ and hearing the power of Tina’s voice. She had a much bigger career in England than she did ‘post-Ike’ in America. I didn’t know, because I didn’t know what the American market was or anything about America then. I thought her voice just was so powerful. Then I remember seeing her in the Who movie [Tommy, 1975], thinking she’s larger than life, so I had a real imprint of who this powerful woman was.”

Written by Mike Chapman, Nicky Chinn, and Holly Knight, “Better Be Good to Me” had originally been recorded by the group Spider three years earlier, and seemed tailor-made for the kind of theatrical flair Turner possessed as a vocalist. Meanwhile, Rupert Hine and his writing partner Jeannette Obstoj drew from Turner’s own life for what became the album’s opening track, “I Might Have Been Queen”. “I think Jeannette was very astute and so when she was asked to write the lyrics specifically for this song for Tina, she would have done her homework,” says Curnin. “I really loved the pictures she painted with that lyric.” Indeed, a line like “I remember the girl in the fields with no name” alluded to Turner’s southern upbringing as well as her Buddhist faith.

“I was just discovering Buddhism,” Curnin continues. “Tina was a few years ahead in that world. She was explaining how she’d found strength and her calmness and the power of her voice in the Zen teachings. That was very enlightening to me in the early stages of my own journey. I found out she’s a Sagittarius and so am I. She gave me a real gift, which was the strength of Zen within me. It allowed me to survive some pretty crazy days and then get beyond that.”

Curnin joined Hine and Turner on background vocals for “I Might Have Been Queen” and “Better Be Good to Me” while Fixx member Jamie West-Oram lent guitar parts to both tracks. “When we were singing backing vocals after Tina had sung her parts, we were all standing around the mic and Rupert suggested that Tina go to the back of the room because her voice was so much louder!” Curnin recalls. Both songs spotlighted Turner’s strength as a rock vocalist, where attitude and feeling account for everything. Ultimately, “I Might Have Been Queen” and “Better Be Good to Me” bookended Side One of Private Dancer with two of Turner’s most essential recordings. 

“A couple of months later, we get a call,” Curnin continues. “Roger Davies said, ‘Hey we’re doing a video for ‘Better Be Good to Me’. Do you want to be in the video?’ I was like, ‘Yeah! Great idea.’ That sounded amazing. We were set to fly to Australia for a bit of our tour about a week after he called. We had to fly to LA from London, do a whirlwind eighteen hours of dancing around on this video, then fly back and fly out.”

Cy Curnin and Jamie West-Oram were already acquainted with director Brian Grant, who’d filmed the Fixx’s “Saved By Zero” video a year earlier. “We knew Brian really well,” says Curnin. “When we were doing our first videos, we used to have to beg the record company for any budget at all. In England, MTV hadn’t been discovered. Jeannette made ‘Red Skies’ on $10,000. Then we did ‘Stand or Fall’. Before we did ‘One Thing Leads to Another’, the record company had decided that they would rather go with someone that was a true and trusted professional in the video world, so we were a little wary of it going outside of our camp.

“I remember Brian taking us to dinner to discuss the idea of what the video for ‘Saved By Zero’ could be about. You could see that he was really into it and he wasn’t just a hired gun. It was still an exciting time for him. He was very organized. He was coming from the world of shooting commercials and other things he was working on. It went really well. He had a good sort of vibe. He definitely had a style of his own and then to see him suddenly do Tina’s video, which was a completely different style to ours, I was like, Wow this guy has got more strings to his bow because this was a live shoot with the energy of Tina and the band around her.”

Tina Turner 'Better Be Good to Me'
Tina Turner ‘Better Be Good to Me’ [1984] UK single. Courtesy of Capitol Records.

“Better Be Good to Me” also resumed Grant’s professional alliance with Roger Davies. “I’d made ‘Physical’ with Olivia Newton-John in 1981,” he says. “Roger was Olivia’s manager. I had become quite good friends with him because of ‘Physical’. He was in London. He said, ‘We’re going to do some videos for Tina’s album. We don’t want to do something ridiculously difficult. We just want to do something quite simple.’ They sent me the song and then I went to America.

“I met Tina at a very short meeting in Hollywood. Roger was there. People like Tina walk into a room and … it’s Tina Turner! She was very gracious and quite funny. Artists tend to put on a smile or an act, but the truth is nine times out of ten everybody’s nervous when you first meet. You don’t quite know whether the chemistry is going to work. I seem to remember she was very gracious. We had the conversation, talked about the song. They wanted to make the video feel as if it was a live gig. Tina has always been brilliant live, always. She’s always been an incredible performer, right back to the ’60s. I knew that whatever else we did, we’d get that.”

Grant headquartered the shoot at the Beverly Theater, a venue where Turner herself was booked to perform two months later. The director transformed the Beverly into a small rock club, dressing the venue with glowing cat eyes and oversize paintings of panthers from Turner’s own stage set. Grant simulated a full moon to herald Turner’s entrance, creating a shadow of tousled hair that crowned Turner in silhouette.

The singer’s stunning visage commanded attention even before she sang a note. “We shot in 35 millimeter,” says Grant, whose finesse in shooting close-ups had become a hallmark of his music videos. “In those days, most of the stuff we shot was on 16 millimeter, which is still lovely, but it’s not the same as 35 mm. That’s why that close-up looks as good as it does — it’s lit beautifully and it’s 35 mm.

“I’ve photographed quite a lot of good-looking women and I always shoot a close-up. It always gives the artist a great deal of confidence because you’ve spent an hour making them look fantastic and they’ve gotten a great performance out of it. I was a camera man before I was a director, so I’ve always shot things, but I realized that you’ve really got to make women look beautiful. I learnt that with Kiki Dee [‘Star’]. It almost becomes a photo session. You usually get rid of everybody. I operate the camera. By taking an hour just to do that one shot, a number of things happen: you get a beautiful shot, make-up and everyone have all the time in the world to get it right, and you form a bond with the singer because it’s just you and her and a camera. If the music’s great, it always gets me going because she’s singing to me. That creates this dynamic between you. The day becomes much easier, as it were.

“What you do on a day like that is you shoot some kind of wide shot to make everybody feel good, then I would have shot Tina. Then I would have shot the band. When you’re shooting a normal band, everybody’s part of that music video, but when you’re shooting guys who are really session guys, they don’t get that kind of attention. When you start shooting them, I think it surprises them. For example, you do an entire take on the drummer. Most of the time, they’ll get two or three shots if they’re lucky.”

Of the four videos Turner made for Private Dancer, “Better Be Good to Me” evidenced  the singer’s connection with her audience. A local LA radio station announced the video shoot, drawing an eager crowd of Turner’s fans, who brought a sense of authenticity to the performance-driven nature of the video. “It’s a very quick and cheap way of getting extras,” Grant chuckles. “‘If you want to come to the Beverly Theater and spend an afternoon with Tina Turner, please come along’ … whatever it was. As long as she’s on the stage, they’ll stay forever.” In a sense, the crowd mirrored an eclectic range of styles and sensibilities akin to the West Village dwellers in “What’s Love Got to Do With It”, further highlighting Turner’s cross-format appeal. 

Tina Turner with director Brian Grant
Tina Turner with director Brian Grant [far left]. ‘Better Be Good to Me’ video shoot [1984]. Courtesy of Brian Grant.

Earlier that day, Cy Curnin and Jamie West-Oram surfaced at the Beverly to take their position onstage. “Jamie and I turn up at this great little theater in LA,” Curnin recalls. “We didn’t really know what we were going to do other than just mime our part. Brian said, ‘Jamie, do your studio guitar thing as if you’re in a live band and Cy you can come on and dance around.’ I played this kind of cheeky boyfriend who had been tormenting her, whatever the idea was in the video. It was all just spontaneous. 

“You could see Tina’s a natural. Whether it was take one or take 30, she was still doing it. She wasn’t miming. She was belting it out. That just made it feel all the more real. We’d had somewhat of a relationship at the studio before, so we felt comfortable. I’m pretty good at rising with someone else’s energy so I just kept going along with her. I wanted to keep this element of surprise, so her reactions to me or my reactions to her would be real. I decided, Oh, I’ll do this barefoot, thinking five takes and I’ll have it. About 50 takes later, my feet are killing me! I’m asking the crew, ‘Do you got any cocaine?’ It wasn’t to snort. It was to rub on my feet!”

In between, Toni Basil was summoned to contribute ideas for choreography. “I’m just assuming Tina asked for me,” Basil says. “All of a sudden, I’m there. I think it was more of an overall idea in working with Tina. I contributed whatever I could.” Curnin continues, “Toni was working with Tina on some of the moves. She turned to me and said, ‘You can get these moves going.’ I said, ‘I’ve got one schtick. I do my schtick and that’s about what it’s going to be.'” Basil understood Curnin’s approach, having worked with many legendary front men. “When I worked with Mick Jagger, which was several times, you don’t give them your steps,” she says. “You give them back their steps because of their persona, or you might re-work it or give them some ideas.”

Incorporating some of Basil’s moves and some of her own, Turner rocked every corner of the Beverly. She towered over the crowd, gliding across the stage in zebra-stripe heels. This was the leather-clad Tina Turner that had wowed Lionel Richie fans for the past three months on the cusp of a comeback.

Only one incident nearly halted production. “Believe it or not, we are inside the theater for the whole day, but Beverly Hills says it doesn’t matter, you still got to have two policemen with you and you’ve got to pay for them,” Grant explains. “We had two Beverly Hills cops sitting in the theater for the whole day, drinking our coffee, eating our food, just sitting and watching the whole proceedings. It gets to about 10:00 p.m., and we have a license that you’ve got to stop shooting at 10:00 p.m. I hadn’t finished everything. One of the cops walks up to me and says, ‘Mr. Grant, we’ve got to shut you down now. Your license is up.’ I’m going, I just need another thirty minutes. ‘It says on the piece of paper that we’ve got to shut you down.’ At that point I said, ‘Okay, you can tell Tina.’ At that point, I promise you, this guy looked at Tina and said, ‘Half an hour.’ It was just brilliant. She can be fierce!” 

MTV premiered “Better Be Good to Me” the last week of August 1984 as “What’s Love Got to Do With It” continued its reign at number one. The video became a favorite among viewers, as well as the the singer herself. “This was my favorite video and my favorite song of that time,” Turner later declared in a 1989 interview with MuchMusic in Canada. A day after Turner’s performance on the MTV Video Music Awards, “Better Be Good to Me” debuted on the Hot 100 where it would peak at number five. 

“I think the close-up does the work,” says Grant, reflecting on how “Better Be Good to Me” captured Turner’s essence. “That close-up does it for you! She seems to be singing to you when you watch that close-up. Even though it’s a raunchy song, it seems quite intimate in a funny sort of way. If you go back and look at Tina in the 1960s, she was younger and music was different, but that raunchiness and that energy was there in the ’60s. That energy hasn’t gone away at all in ‘Better Be Good to Me’.”