Nearly A century before Tina Turner's current and possibly final tour, Sarah Bernhardt, the greatest actress of her time, made a similar journey. At 71, Bernhardt did not possess the remarkable health the 68-year-old Turner displayed Monday at the Staples Center. Instead of flashing two still-mighty legs for everyone to admire, Bernhardt hid one under her skirts; the other had been amputated after an infection, and she sat in a chair to deliver her soliloquies. Yet the Divine Sarah's voice and physical charisma still enraptured audiences in the U.S. and beyond, and the very fact of the tour, so seemingly defiant of mortality, added to an already considerable legend.
Turner, who Thursday returns to the Staples Center, is making her claim for eternal glory in sports arenas across the nation right now. Coaxed out of retirement by her friend Oprah Winfrey, she's put together a tribute to herself that bursts out of the gate at full speed, assaulting the audience with sounds and images from throughout Turner's 50-year career. Unlike such other backward-looking divas as Cher or even Janet Jackson, Turner remained focused on forward motion: Even as the show's elaborate set pieces dramatized highlights from her past, the singer pushed her voice and body in a performance that was all about her prowess right now.
In more than two hours onstage, Turner shimmied, strutted and did the funky chicken, wearing designer miniskirts that replaced her signature fringe with figure-flattering sequins. She was supported but never topped by four dancers probably one-third her age. She fearlessly ran down a ramp extending above the audience, flawlessly descended a staircase in stilettos and tirelessly shook her mane of a wig as she worked through the soul-rock gems in her catalog.
Turner's moves transcended sexual expression to become superhuman, the miraculous athleticism of a woman who's moved beyond life's stages into some other state of eternal strength.
If this sounds dramatic, don't forget that, like Bernhardt, Turner is a figure whose artistic genius is all tied up in her physicality -- and in a biography marked by physical hardship and survival. This career-spanning show never referred to her former husband, the late Ike Turner, who helped Tina establish herself artistically, only to violently abuse her. Yet the defiance and stoicism expressed in many of Turner's songs become more affecting in light of what she's endured.
If only she could still sing them with the control -- as well as the fiery power -- she had when she recorded them. Through the show's first half, Turner frequently missed notes, sometimes going utterly off key. Whenever her dance moves got tricky, it seemed, Turner's vocals suffered.
As the night wore on through renditions of 1980s power ballads, classic rock covers and her own formative soul hits, another pattern also surfaced. Turner delivered on songs with a soul or classic rock bent -- songs whose melodies are right in the pocket with percolating beats and greasy guitar riffs. Mining the bent notes and gruff intonation of soul, Turner mastered the rough but beautiful timbre that made her famous. On smoother, less sturdy songs like "Typical Male," Turner pushed too hard and ended up shrieking.
The fans delighting in Turner's presence didn't seem to care about these vocal missteps. The production offered many distractions, from two dancers pantomiming a spy movie plot during "Golden Eye," Turner's 1995 James Bond theme song, to a red-tinged re-creation of Turner's "Acid Queen" sequence from the film "Tommy" and an over-the-top homage to another of her movies, "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome," that put Turner in a rather monstrous blond wig.
The quartet of body-shaking dancers also grabbed a lot of attention, aiming to master the fiercely sexy style Turner developed leading her 1960s troupe, the Ikettes.
The evening's undeniable highlight came when Turner set aside the spectacle, took a stool and performed a brief "unplugged" set with her band. The players, many of whom are longtime Turner collaborators, were polished without being overly slick as they dug into a soulful rearrangement of the Beatles' "Help" and a boogie-woogie take on the Ann Peebles blues tune "I Can't Stand the Rain." Turner reveled in the raucous music, finding her place within it instead of fighting against it, as she had on some previous tunes.
Images of rock stars including Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton flashed across the screen as she sang a Rolling Stones medley, reminding viewers that these geezers, not just her fellow soul queens, are her peers. Turner is the performer who taught many of those skinny English lads, as she famously says in "Proud Mary," to "do it nice and rough."
For all the flash of the production and the dazzling image of Turner's still-enticing flesh poured into those sparkling costumes, the high points came when she returned to that dirty sound. Could Bernhardt's ghost have been whispering in her ear? Turner really seemed to realize, then, that a great pair of legs can carry you far, but a great voice might truly be immortal.