In 1984, Tina Turner was basking in the glow of a stunning resurgence. Her comeback album, ‘Private Dancer‘, dropped in May and was a gigantic commercial success – a triple-Grammy winner selling 10 million copies worldwide. The former R&B singer had reinvented herself as the queen of rock and roll, and the triumphant revival in her fortunes led to Hollywood calling. One of the first to drop her a line was Steven Spielberg, who asked if she’d take the lead in his forthcoming adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel, The Color Purple. She turned it down flat. Too depressing. It was like reliving her troubled life with ex-husband and ex-music partner Ike Turner all over again, she explained.
Another tantalising offer had come in, anyway. This time, from Down Under. George Miller, director of the box office-smashing, post-apocalyptic Mad Max films, was concluding the saga and auditioned Turner to play the villain. Not only did he ask her to portray Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome’s big bad, Aunty Entity, but he and co-writer Terry Hayes had written the part specifically for Turner. Miller had watched an interview on British television and was captivated by her positive image and charisma. Pop stars crossing over to the movies was nothing new and there was a boom occurring on this front in the 1980s (David Bowie in Labyrinth, Cher’s Oscar-winning turn for Moonstruck). Nevertheless, it was certainly rare enough for such a pivotal role, an action antiheroine, to be offered to a 40-something African American woman with little acting experience. She’d appeared in Ken Russell’s 1975 rock opera, Tommy, as the Acid Queen, but such a part was firmly in her wheelhouse and nowhere near as demanding as co-headlining a blockbuster.
We hear Turner before we see her on screen. She recorded two songs as tie-ins: the power ballad ‘We Don’t Need Another Hero (Thunderdome)’ and ‘One of the Living’. It is the latter which plays over the opening credits, announcing to audiences a different level of energy for the threequel; a more commercial, less abrasive mood. Penned by Graham Lyle and Terry Britten, ‘We Don’t Need Another Hero’ was released just before the film’s release in July 1985 and became a hit worldwide and a firm fixture in Turner’s live repertoire. The songwriters went on to pick up an Ivor Novello prize for their composition, while the rockier ‘One of the Living’, penned by Holly Knight, though it didn’t chart as highly, won Turner a 1986 Grammy (Best Female Rock Vocal Performance).
The first half of Beyond Thunderdome takes place in Bartertown, a former mine turned trading outpost deep in the Wasteland, built by Aunty Entity from the ashes of the old world. She lives in an elevated penthouse palace, a kind of Glastonbury glamping yurt sat on stilts offering a 360 degree panorama of her territory, the structure made of salvaged wood and decorated with billowing white sheets. The wave-like roofing cleverly aludes to the Sydney Opera House. Aunty rebuilt this slice of civilisation after apocalyptic events and demonstrates she is a special kind of warrior woman. She has to be, for men to readily follow her leadership and maintain their loyalty. Aunty rules through reason and persuasion, not fear. She’s no Immortan Joe from Fury Road. She is intelligent, fair-minded, but ruthless when necessary. Bartertown means everything.“I’ll do anything to protect it,” she tells Max (Mel Gibson).
Aunty cuts a formidable figure, thanks to Norma Moriceau’s eye-catching costume design and the big, blonde wig the star sported (she had to shave her head so the hairpiece would fit properly, and did so without complaint or demanding more money.) She looks like an Amazonian goddess on screen, despite being only 5’’4’ in real life. The snazzy chainmail dress, which weighed 70 pounds, was made from an assortment of soldered materials — dog muzzles, butcher aprons and chicken wire, the ensemble completed by chunky spring coil earrings. It is properly iconic, as iconic as Max’s leathers, boasting hints of popinjay rock-royalty bling, Afrofuturism and medieval influences.
Turner was also itching to do stuntwork, which Miller was uneasy about, initially. She did, however, end up driving her own vehicle in a few sequences, the production team having to convert the behemoth to automatic, as Turner couldn’t drive manual. On her overall performance in the film, she was sweetly modest during promotional rounds. She liked certain scenes and was slightly critical of others, believing overall that she’d done a good job.
Beyond Thunderdome, importantly, captured Tina Turner on film at a great time in her life. Like Aunty Entity, she was a survivor and a person looking ahead not back. In the character’s introductory scene, the Dominatrix of Bartertown briefly details to Max how Entity was a nobody who became a somebody. “So much for history,” she quips to the laconic outlaw, clearly not wanting to dwell too much on the past. It’s a fleeting yet poignant line of dialogue, where Tina Turner and Aunty Entity truly combine.