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.

“Private Dancer”

“She’s Got Legs!” a Rolling Stone headline exclaimed in October 1984. It was the fourth time since 1967 that the magazine featured Tina Turner on its cover. The singer had even more good news to celebrate that month. Director George Miller had recently cast the singer as Aunty Entity, ruler of the post-apocalyptic desert outpost Bartertown, in his third installment of Mad Max.

A decade earlier, Turner had won rave reviews for her incendiary performance as “the Acid Queen” in the Who’s Tommy, but Aunty Entity was not a singing role. This was a lead role where Turner’s character fueled most of the film’s most dramatic scenes. However, before Turner transformed into Aunty Entity, she had another character to play — the title role in “Private Dancer”.

Roger Davies approached Brian Grant about directing Turner’s fourth and final video for Private Dancer. He recalls, “Roger sent it to me and said, ‘Have a listen to this.’ I listened to it and loved it. It’s thematic, it’s cinematic. It could be from a film. It’s got a story, so you’re already dealing with some kind of narrative. If you can interpret the song, not in a literal way, from a directing point of view, then it’s your script.

“There’s a reason that those of us who were making music videos at the time were there. We all wanted to make movies. You can’t do it with every piece of music. It’s impossible. You have to be driven by what the track’s doing. If you try and do something else, and I’ve done it, then you fail. When you get a track like ‘Private Dancer’, which has a narrative of some sort, and it is about something other than love and sex, then it gives you that opportunity to enhance your own ability. MTV was a kind of apprenticeship. Other people paid for our film school, basically, so here’s an opportunity to do something that’s a period piece, which is always beautiful.

“I didn’t quite know what ‘Private Dancer’ was all about at first, so I did some research. It’s about a taxi dancer. Taxi dancers were paid dance partners in dance halls in the twenties and thirties in Chicago and New York. Basically, you could walk into a taxi dance hall and hire a woman to dance with you. You paid for how many dances you had with her. Once I realized that, I thought, There’s a very interesting story there. I had somewhere to start. I thought, How do we do this? You can’t just have an entire video where Tina is dancing with lots of men who are constantly paying for her. Once you’ve seen that twice, you’ve seen it! I remember thinking to myself, I’ve got to go into what this woman is really about. In other words, try and illuminate the character in the song. That was the starting point.”

Grant enlisted his longtime collaborator Arlene Phillips to choreograph the video. “Arlene’s choreographed almost everything I’ve ever done,” he says.For Arlene, ‘Private Dancer’ was wonderful because it’s a celebration of dance and at that point she was the go-to choreographer in London, therefore she attracted all the best dancers and had very distinct ideas.” In fact, the same night Turner performed at the first MTV Video Music Awards, Phillips received a “Best Choreography” nomination for her work on Donna Summer’s “She Works Hard for the Money”, directed by Grant.

The director and choreographer scouted locations around London before discovering the Rivoli Ballroom in Southeast London. “It was about to close down because they had found asbestos in the roof, which was very very dangerous,” says Phillips. “They agreed to let us make the video there but it was closing down the day after. It was like being on a building site yet they had preserved the ballroom. The ceiling was rough. The dressing rooms, the toilets, everything was really quite unpleasant … not a place you’d want to go!” Grant continues, “We used the Rivoli Ballroom for itself, but then we built little tiny sets inside the ballroom. Each one of those sets was much smaller than it looks, believe me. We would have done all of those inserts first, taken them all down, and then we would have had the big space of the ballroom to shoot the wide stuff.”

Turner’s role as the taxi dancer embodied a poignant exploration of reality versus fantasy. “I treated it like I would do a drama,” says Grant. “Let’s create a character. Every day she goes to work, she puts her makeup on, she goes out, she dances, she has to put a smile on. She dances with this guy or that guy. It becomes tedious. It’s boring as hell. I thought, What’s really going on in the head of this woman as she dances with these people? I made up the fact that maybe she wanted to be a professional dancer in another way, maybe she wanted to be a ballerina or maybe she wanted to be a flamenco dancer. What I’m thinking is, as she’s dancing with this guy, a way to get past the drudgery and the boredom of it all is to pretend you’re doing something else, as it were. That’s how I think I conveyed it to Tina — you’re playing two characters. You’re playing the real taxi dancer, and within that character is a fantasy of another character.” That duality anchored the most dramatic and conceptually elaborate video Turner ever made. 

Phillips helped animate more than a dozen dancers who signified the title character’s felled hopes and dreams as a dancer. “Every one of those people could have been her,” she says. “I was listening to the recording a lot. I started to think about private dancers, dancers for money. For whatever reason, all of the private dancers, had wanted to be a [professional] dancer at some point and somewhere along the way, life has changed for them and they need to go and make their money as a private dancer. I wanted Tina Turner to look at all of the different ways that she could have been. I wanted everything to be meaningful to her, knowing where she was going to end up that night — in some little room at the back of the ballroom.

“If you sit and listen to the record, you are hearing, in Tina’s voice, longing but it also has a dream-like quality. It has a calm and an acceptance of life. If you study the video, you can see that longing and that yearning in her face as she walks through and she sees these different scenes. I always think that somewhere they were part of her life, somewhere it’s something that she saw or she had been through or she dreamed of. Did this happen or didn’t it? Is this a dream or was that moment real? I love mystery. I love these sort of enigmatic moments.

Director Brian Grant and Tina Turner
 Director Brian Grant and Tina Turner. ‘Private Dancer’ video shoot [1984]. Courtesy of Brian Grant.

“When I look at that video, I see that the dancers are so involved in what they’re doing. I tried to do little stories kind of all the way through. On music videos, you had kind of one chance to be able to tell a story, but that story is always something that you use to guide the dancers to what you want from the piece and also having to make it as visual and entertaining as possible. On MTV, everyone was trying to entertain, to capture the star, the music, and the whole visual presentation of video, so you’re kind of working in a lot of things, but I’m always going to give the dancers something to think about, so they’re not just dancing steps. I’m always like a mirror with their faces — ‘This is what I want you to tell. Use your eyes. Use your hands. Use your face.’ Sometimes the dancers are shot for just a few seconds, but every second matters.”

Each of the characters that Turner observes in the video’s fantasy sequence is a portal to her own character’s life, whether real or imagined. “I thought it would be nice if you could have moments in it that she might have experienced,” Grant continues. “For example, the moment when the sailor throws the hat. At some point, she would have met a sailor. There’s a moment where there’s a guy in an army uniform. That could be a soldier who’s come back from the first World War, who hasn’t danced with anybody for ages. That might have been an experience she had.

“In the second verse she says, ‘I want to have a husband and some children’ and you see a couple that are in a wedding gown but they’re covered in cobwebs. The marriage might last or it might not, so that’s what the cobwebs are all about — longevity. That might seem like the right thing to do — have a husband and children — or it might be worse than you’ve got now, or it might be better. I covered the band in cobwebs — that’s about it being repetitious. Same old thing, every night. There’s the couple dancing in bandages. That’s about being trapped. These are all image metaphors, as it were. All of these images have some kind of reasoning behind them.”

A sensuous dance overlays the instrumental portion of the track, where Turner’s character sits alone pensively, almost frozen in daydream. “I love that dance routine in the middle,” says Grant. “It’s beautifully shot and lit, and beautifully executed by those dancers. I’m very fond of that. I said to Arlene, ‘Just create something fabulous’, which is what she did.” Phillips adds, “I wanted to build up everything that Tina saw and here was, ultimately, the performance. Is that something that she never realized as a reality for herself or is it a moment where she’s saying, ‘I was once part of that. I was not a private dancer. I was a part of the big picture of dance’?” Indeed, Grant shrouded the scene with an elliptical quality that left the meaning open to interpretation. 

As the video continues, Turner’s character is glimpsed dancing alone behind a gauzy scrim. “What she’s doing there is her performance in the private dance room,” says Phillips. “You’ll notice her mood change on that little bit. You can see that she’s slightly aggressive. You can kind of see the pain in her face. It’s like, ‘I know I have to do this.’ It’s that moment where she sees herself — this is what she does for money.”

For a fleeting moment, “Private Dancer” returns to the grandeur of the Rivoli Ballroom where it seems as if Turner has escaped the mundanity of her world. “She appears to be dancing with the right guy,” Grant says. “The possibility in her head is that one day the guy that’s going to take me away from all this is going to walk into this ballroom, which of course is a fantasy in itself because it’s probably never going to happen. That’s why we put the old lady in there, watching. She has a kind of skeptical look.”

The director closes the video’s fantasy sequence with a tableau steeped in the tradition of dance — tossing flowers. “At the end of a ballet or an opera, people throw roses or flowers onto the stage,” Grant says. “It seemed much more interesting to put Tina on the floor. She’s enjoying adulation.” The back cover of the “Private Dancer” single even featured a still from the video where long-stemmed roses and carnations adorn Turner.

Tina Turner 'Private Dancer'
 Tina Turner ‘Private Dancer’ [1984] US single. Courtesy of Capitol Records.

However, Turner’s character eventually returns to her “dime-a-dance” reality. “It wasn’t supposed to have a happy ending,” says Grant. “When she walks off at the end, she has a little tear in her eye. I seem to remember us having some conversations about that. This always happens — there was somebody at the record company who said, ‘Well it’s got to have a happy ending.’ ‘Well, what would you suggest we do?’ It’s not exactly an uplifting song in that regard. It is a very melancholy piece of music. It is about reflecting and it is about the life of somebody like this.”

During the video’s extended dance sequence, one of the dancers approaches Turner and tenderly touches her face. “For me, that moment was the collective way I think that we all felt about her on that night of filming,” says Phillips. “The video was made with so much love. Everybody wanted to be part of this. The most beautiful thing I remember about that, and I will never forget this, is that there were long breaks, setting up cameras, changing shots or shooting little bits here and there, and Tina was sitting on a wooden crate, always surrounded by the dancers, totally wonderful with everyone, and just became a part of what we were doing. It wasn’t ‘Tina Turner’ and the crew and the dancers and the choreographer. It was everybody together. She sat telling stories. There wasn’t a person in that ballroom that hadn’t totally fallen in love with her. It was the only shoot that I’ve been on where the dancers didn’t start complaining about how many hours they’d been there or when they were going to get paid before they left.”

As someone who aspired to pursue acting beyond music videos and her role in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985), Turner was genuinely eager to learn about the technical aspects of filmmaking. “Tina was on the set the whole time,” says Grant. “She sat and watched every single part of the process, even when she wasn’t involved, which artists don’t usually do. I think she wanted to see about the story and how it was going to work.” In an interview with Billboard, Turner shared her satisfaction with “Private Dancer” stating “It came out exactly as I wished” (2 February 1985), a compliment to the vision that Grant and Phillips derived from Mark Knopfler’s lyrics.

“The video seems to stand up after all these years, for its time,” Grant says. “That’s all you can ask for really. There’s plenty of videos that don’t, and this one does. Tina inhabited that character.”

The video for “Private Dancer” led Capitol Records and Sony Video’s campaign for Tina Turner — Private Dancer, a videocassette that compiled the title track, “Let’s Stay Together”, “What’s Love Got to Do With It”, and “Better Be Good to Me” as part of  Sony’s “Video 45” series, which also included releases by Capitol/EMI artists like David Bowie, the Motels, Kim Carnes, Ashford & Simpson, Stray Cats, and Duran Duran. Sony Video Software’s national marketing manager Andrew Schofer told Billboard that the video marked the first time “a Video 45 is made available at the marketplace at the same time that one of its clips is going into rotation on music video outlets and its single is being pushed up the charts” (22 December 1984).

Bill Burks, Vice President of Merchandising and creative services for Capitol, explained the synergy behind the label and video company’s partnership. “Video dealers and distributors are often hurt when music video product enters the marketplace so long after first being viewed on video outlets that they don’t benefit from the earlier exposure,” he said. “This way both sides reinforce each other while the whole thing underscores the fact that we’re midway through the Private Dancer project, and are reminding the industry, retail and consumer communities that it’s longterm.”

The strategy worked. Capitol issued “Private Dancer” on 28 December 1984 in advance of the videocassette’s mid-January release. The single debuted on the Hot 100 the week ending 19 January 1985, slowly climbing up the Top Ten. A week later, Turner performed “Private Dancer” on the American Music Awards where she won two awards, including “Favorite Black Female Video Artist”. Within two months of its release, Tina Turner — Private Dancer made Billboard history as the first video to top the trade magazine’s brand new Top Music Videocassette chart (30 March 1985). The video drew enough attention that even The New York Times reviewed the four-song “Video 45”, writing that “Tina Turner’s self-possessed sexiness is so phenomenal that watching her perform in any setting can be mesmerizing” (26 May 1985).