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’ The Concert and the Impact

Private Dancer was headed towards quadruple platinum on the evening of 26 February 1985, the 27th annual GRAMMY Awards. Months earlier, the album held the number three spot on the Billboard 200 for nine consecutive weeks, shielded from the top only by Prince & the Revolution’s Purple Rain (1984) soundtrack and Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. (1984). Both albums were contenders for “Album of the Year” alongside Private Dancer, Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual (1983) and the category’s victor, Can’t Slow Down (1983) by Lionel Richie.

Springsteen and Richie were among those who stood and applauded after Turner’s performance of “What’s Love Got to Do With It” on the telecast. Critics contended that it wasn’t a matter of whether or not Turner would win GRAMMY Awards that evening, but how many? The singer was duly fêted with “Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female” (“What’s Love Got to Do With It”), “Best Rock Vocal Performance, Female” (“Better Be Good to Me”), and “Record of the Year” (“What’s Love Got to Do With It”), an honor she shared with producer Terry Britten. For an industry that, only a few years earlier, had dismissed Turner’s viability as a recording artist, the awards represented powerful vindication. 

Less than a day after sweeping the GRAMMY Awards, Turner hopped a plane and began the European leg of her 1985 Private Dancer tour. In the meantime, David Mallet was commissioned to direct Turner’s two-night stand at the NEC Arena in Birmingham (UK). Three years after filming her concert at Hammersmith Odeon, he was now documenting Turner at the height of her commercial renaissance. “The personal significance for me was the fact that here’s this woman who’s as good years later as she was 20 years earlier, who was actually better, maybe,” he says. “She was a phenomenon in ’65 on TV and she was a phenomenon in ’85.” For the US market, Tina Live — Private Dancer Tour (1985) was slated to premiere on HBO in June 1985, followed by a videocassette release two months later. 

Mallet orchestrated an elaborate setup for the shoot, coordinating a team of no less than 15 camera operators stationed throughout the arena. “We filmed that over two nights,” Mallet recalls. “We shot that on 35mm film, which was unheard of in those days because the reels last nine minutes. Then you have three minutes with nothing going on while you change the reel. It becomes the most impossible thing to do. In those days, there weren’t many camera operators that could shoot rock ‘n roll. We had to plunder the documentary business and the film business. I got lucky there. All but two were good two were worse than useless! The good ones are still, right up until this year, shooting AC/DC with me. I found lots of really good people that night. 

“There were more than 15 cameras because what I said was if the bloody thing runs out and you’ve got three minutes without a camera, grab another camera and let them re-load it for you. I couldn’t believe that nobody had thought of doing that! ‘We can’t afford another camera!’ I said, ‘It’s cheaper than another camera operator.'”

Tina Turner at the American Music Awards
Tina Turner at the American Music Awards [28 January 1985]. Copyright: Ralph Dominguez/MediaPunch. MediaPunch Inc / Alamy Stock Photo.

Turner’s NEC concert followed standard pre-production protocol. “It was the same as any other concert I’ve ever shot, which is sheer hard work on the way in and then once it starts, there’s nothing you can do about it,” Mallet explains. “Nobody can hear a damn thing, nobody can see a damn thing, so you’ve got to have worked it all out in advance and then let it rip. All this business that you can tell someone to pick up the lead guitar on the first bar of the fourth solo is all rubbish because by the time they’ve been swamped by fans and hit on the head with a bottle and all that, they’re not gonna count bars. You just need to set it up in the best possible way for every position for every camera so that wherever they point, they can’t lose. You’ve got to set a winning position for every single one of those cameras.”

A suspended flying camera system called the SkyCam captured Tina Turner with one of the film industry’s latest innovations. “In those days, it was the most amazing invention,” Mallet says. “It wouldn’t go fast enough, so I said, ‘It’s 110 volts, put it on 220 volts’— this is English voltage — ‘Get rid of the transformers.’ They did, and it flew at double the speed, but it blew up after about 40 minutes. It was worth it. It looked great when it was going! If you look carefully, it disappears after forty minutes.” For those 40 minutes, the SkyCam soared through the arena like a comet, magnetically pulling the crowd’s energy towards Turner.

“I want to sing songs from my album Private Dancer for you,” Turner told the audience after opening the show with an explosive rendition of “Show Some Respect”. It marked the first filmed concert where Turner performed songs that she’d popularized as a solo artist, not just “Proud Mary” or high-octane covers of the Rolling Stones and Rod Stewart. Even an album track like “I Might Have Been Queen” sparked the same roar of audience approval as the LP’s biggest hits.

The concert proceeded with Turner amplifying nearly every track off Private Dancer for arena-sized impact. Holding court in a variation on the denim jacket-mini skirt ensemble from “What’s Love Got to Do With It”, Turner summoned Bryan Adams from the wings for “It’s Only Love”, a duet that Adams wrote specifically for Turner on his Reckless (1984) album. “Bryan’s not taking a step back,” says Nina Blackwood. “He’s just him, with that twinkle that he’s got in his eye. Tina seems equally charmed by him. He’s a little mischievous!” The two artists generated undeniable heat, and would subsequently win an MTV Video Music Award for “Best Stage Performance” (1986) after MTV began airing “It’s Only Love” on the network.

David Bowie furnished the big surprise of the concert, joining Turner on the title track to his Tonight (1984) album. The two longtime friends radiated a sweet affection as they danced center stage. “I’ve seen Tina so many times over the years and this is a privilege to be on the same stage as you Tina,” Bowie said. The duo closed the concert with a medley of “Let’s Dance”, both the ’60s classic by Chris Montez and Bowie’s chart-topping hit. 

“I don’t think any of us knew that it was going to take off like that,” Mallet says about Turner’s chemistry with Bowie. “It was Bowie that wanted to do something with her. Anytime Tina did anything with another artist it was almost always because that other artist, whoever it was, wanted to do something with the great Tina Turner.”

“Ms. Turner is a magnificent whirlwind, coming on full blast,” The New York Times raved just before the concert’s HBO premiere in June 1985. “With a career going back to the 1950s, she is still sizzle incarnate. And she still commands riveted attention” (18 June 1985). “America loved it,” says Mallet. “America got hip a lot faster than Britain. Everybody in England hated it. They said that the cutting was far too fast. At one stage, they refused to broadcast it unless I re-edited it. That was another thing I edited the whole thing myself. I think you’ll find that the cutting pace is faster than anything that had ever been, in terms of a rock ‘n roll concert.”

Sony Video Software prepared Tina Live — Private Dancer Tour for release on videocassette in August 1985. Within weeks, it sold more than 150,000 units, the standard for platinum sales in the home video market. “Anyone who has even the slightest history of heart trouble should steer clear of this live Tina Turner tape,” the Daily News quipped. “The twelve-song program is exciting enough to make almost anyone’s arteries burst” (1 September 1985). Months later, the Recording Academy nominated Tina Live — Private Dancer Tour for “Best Music Video, Long Form” at the 28th Annual GRAMMY Awards, while Tina Turner — Private Dancer also received a nomination for “Best Music Video, Short Form”.

However, Turner’s biggest video victory arrived at the Second Annual MTV Video Music Awards in September 1985 when she won “Best Female Video” for “What’s Love Got to Do With It”. The video’s director was thrilled. “Tina hit it out of the park,” says John Mark Robinson. “She was fantastic. I worked with Dylan, the Ramones, the Pretenders, and Bob Marley. Tina was the hardest worker of anybody. It was unbelievable how ready she was, her attitude. She was like a workhorse. I was so proud to be involved with that song. I know that video was running every ten minutes. It became the backbone of MTV for awhile.It’s one of the greats for that period, not to mention it revived Tina’s career, which is another whole fantastic piece of the story. Her re-birth was fabulous. It’s a heroic saga.”

Those who appeared in the video for “What’s Love Got to Do With It” also celebrated how Turner’s success reverberated across the industry. “Even though I didn’t have a big part in it, people remembered that video,” says Jay T Jenkins. “As the video blew up, I definitely understood and appreciated Tina’s impact on rock ‘n roll and music videos, and especially for people of color. Through her, it gave permission for the Black Rock Coalition to come out. Corey [Glover] and Vernon [Reid] and everybody was like, ‘We can do this! We can get out here and make some noise!'”

2EM633B Tina Turner and Lionel Richie during Grammy Awards
Tina Turner and Lionel Richie at the GRAMMY Awards, Los Angeles, CA [26 February 1985]. Copyright: Ralph Dominguez/MediaPunch. MediaPunch Inc / Alamy Stock Photo.

Ming Smith adds, “Tina gave everything to her artistry. The video was a real statement from being in a relationship and now she’s going out on her own. It took courage. You see the struggle and you see the success. Unfortunately, that video changed my life because right after that, the AIDS epidemic happened. The whole artistic community, from designers to agents … It was devastating.” Ed Love, Angelo Colon, and Toyce Anderson — Smith’s cadre of friends who were so integral to the choreography, style, and casting of “What’s Love Got to Do With It” all passed away within years of the video’s release. Their contributions remain indelibly etched in the video’s allure. 

Elsewhere, the video for “Private Dancer” brought Arlene Phillips her second VMA nomination for “Best Choreography”. Beyond Phillips’ talent and creativity, the nomination was a testament to her winning rapport with the singer. “I think Tina’s an artist that is more sure of herself than any other female diva that I’ve worked with, and I’ve worked with many,” she says. “Tina was kind and generous and warm because she was confident in herself. She was sure about what she was doing. It made her one of the easiest people to work with that I ever worked with.”

Turner also secured a VMA nomination in the “Best Stage Performance” category for “Better Be Good to Me”. “Tina’s energy was so powerful that it really was above and beyond the fashion or whatever was going on in the ’80s,” says Cy Curnin, who notes how the Fixx found even more fans after working with Turner on “Better Be Good to Me” and “I Might Have Been Queen”. “The cross-pollination of that period was great for us. I was so proud to have been on that project because it pushed our world into another market. I think people were maybe aware of the human aspect of her story and were championing not only her survival but her newfound wings and glorification of somebody who’s gone through hell and gone beyond. To me, she was ageless, almost like this Greek goddess or some kind of character from a Marvel comic.”

Turner’s popularity with MTV’s audience proved that seasoned acts were relevant and dynamic forces on television. “Tina was older than most of the artists on MTV,” says Nina Blackwood. “I don’t mean that negatively. She had a history behind her. She wasn’t hatched in the video age. She is truly in a league of her own all the way around.” Turner’s autonomy, and the way her success defied music industry conventions, resonated with younger viewers, in particular, seeking to establish their own identity and independence.

Following the release of Tina Live — Private Dancer Tour, David Mallet would direct no less than seven additional concert films for the singer, from Break Every Rule (1986) through Tina Live (2009), a CD/DVD commemorating her 50th Anniversary Tour. “There are, in the world, very few artists,” he says. “There’s plenty of singers. There’s plenty of acts, but artists you can almost count on two hands, since the beginning of rock ‘n roll. She’s kept it going for 50-plus years. That’s not a bad run. That’s the difference between an artist and a singer, a major property. They are very rare.

“I remember making a commercial for Pepsi-Cola with her in LA [1986]. She turned up absolutely on time. She had to do, I think, fifteen different versions of that bloody film, duetting with a different person from God knows where. They were all late and hungover and this, that, and the other. Tina walked in and said, ‘Tell me where to stand, tell me what to do, and I’ll do it. I trust you.’ That commercial was in the biggest film studio you’ve ever seen in your life. She wasn’t expecting that. She was expecting to sit on a stool and talk to some local singer. She had just a great energy to overcome it.”

Similar to Mallet’s tenure with the singer, Toni Basil is one of the few individuals who’s worked with Turner consistently over the span of decades, before and during the Private Dancer era, through choreographing the singer’s video for “Love Thing” (1991) and her last concert tour in 2008-2009. “Tina liked my dancing and I loved her,” says Basil. “It was a great collaboration. Her work ethic was of the highest caliber that you could ever imagine, as is Bowie, as is Bette Midler. These people are not major stars because they’re lazy or they’re not paying attention.

“Before Bette and I embark on every concert that I’ve ever done for her, we go through all of Tina’s stuff. Of course neither of us can dance like Tina but it’s just so inspiring. Even on the last tour, Tina still danced as good. The singing was as good, if not better, because she had become a really good actress. She was a diva and a queen and yet, she’s in the dressing room working with the girls, making sure the weaves and the wigs and the wardrobe and all of that was right. She was very down-to-earth.

“You can talk about her singing and you can talk about her dancing but her walking on that cherry picker arm, like a tight rope? Every time she’d do a show, I would close my eyes. It made me ill and she knew it! When she’d walk that cherry picker, even in rehearsal, it was terrifying. It’s scarier when there’s no audience because there’s just this stone floor underneath her. I remember one rehearsal in Kansas City, she smiled and started to do little James Brown steps on it just to torment me!”

Director David Mallet, choreographer Arlene Phillips, and director Brian Grant at ‘Private Dancer’ video shoot [1984]. Courtesy of Arlene Phillips.

Turner might have retired from the stage after her 50th Anniversary Tour, but she didn’t retreat from the public eye for very long. Beginning in 2009, she recorded a series of albums for the Beyond interfaith project, celebrated the West End and Broadway premieres of Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, and authored three books, including a new memoir My Love Story (2018), a lavishly designed coffee table book celebrating her eightieth birthday Tina: That’s My Life (2019), and a book that explores her spiritual practice and philosophy, Happiness Become You (2020). 

“There’s no nonsense with Tina, at all,” says Brian Grant. “That comes from years and years of the stuff that she’s been through. She had a career in the ’60s, she went through some horrendous things with Ike and her career plummeted after that, and suddenly it all came back. She becomes a bigger star the second time around. It’s about being grateful for that second chance I think. She’s got this amazing energy. It flows out of her. She laughs a lot. She’s very funny. She was always absolutely amazing onstage. She’s a great performer and that’s what comes across always.”

Over the years, Turner herself has written about the process of rebuilding her career. “My success as a solo artist came after many recalibrations and hard-won victories nothing was easy and took a long time,” she wrote in Happiness Becomes You. “But when the breakthrough came, it was seismic. Suddenly, seemingly overnight, Tina Turner was everywhere. On the radio, on MTV, on talk shows, in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, at concert stadiums, in magazines …” At a time when Turner’s story of survival is the centerpiece of Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s Tina documentary, it’s important to consider just how much resistance Turner faced to achieve that breakthrough, successfully conquering racist, sexist, and ageist attitudes that are deeply embedded in the music industry. 

“I knew that Tina was going to be a huge star again,” says Ann Behringer, who danced by the singer’s side during her ascent back to the top. “This is what I always knew about Tina when I started working with her. I knew it. I didn’t have any doubt in my mind. Tina’s one of the strongest women I’ve ever known, and LeJeune too. We all three came out of a lot of adversity. Tina taught me that I am capable, if I put my mind to it, of doing anything, no matter what, in any kind of adversity.”

Turner’s triumph over adversity just happened to play out across a 24-hour cable music channel, where she became the first artist of her generation to boldly reinvent herself for the music video age. “The video directors had a lot to do with changing the persona of artists, but Tina changed her persona herself,” says Gale Sparrow. From the Brooklyn Bridge to the Rivoli Ballroom, Tina Turner proved that love had everything to do with it.

'Private Dancer' video shoot [1984]. Courtesy of Brian Grant and Arlene Phillips.
‘Private Dancer’ video shoot [1984]. Courtesy of Brian Grant and Arlene Phillips.