On stage Nina Simone was known for her utterly free, uninhibited musical expression, which enthralled audiences and attracted life-long fans. But amid the violent, haunting, and senseless day-to-day of the civil rights era in 1960s America, Simone struggled to reconcile her artistic identity and ambition with her devotion to a movement. Culled from hours of autobiographical tapes, this new film unveils the unmitigated ego of a brilliant artist and the absurdities of her time. At the height of her fame Simone walked away from her family, country, career and fans, to move to Liberia and give up performing. The story of her life leading up to that event poses the question, 'how does royalty stomp around in the mud and still walk with grace?'
In brief: A documentary that expertly shows the rise and fall of a gifted performer.
A riveting documentary entitled What Happened, Miss Simone? by Liz Garbus shows the tragedy of a singer-songwriter through her journals, interviews, and rare archival footage.The film covers similar ground as we watch the downward spiral of yet another gifted performer.
Talented at a young age and trained as a classical pianist, Nina Simone fought against poverty and prejudice to make her mark in the music industry. Like Ms. Winehouse, Miss Simone was a manic depressive performer on the road to fame and fortune. She too dealt with an abusive family member, her husband and manager Andrew Stroud, had numerous bouts with alcohol and violent mood swings amid her frequent mental disorders. At the peak of her career, her finances were a shamble as was her marriage and she became an advocate for the civil rights movement, although her methods became extremely volatile and radicalized in her later years.
This documentary (never distributed in regional movie theaters and available now on Netflix) uses her concert performances and more archival footage from famous celebrities like Hugh Hefner, Dick Gregory, and Stokely Carmichael to narrate Miss Simone's turbulent life. But the most effective interview comes from her daughter Lisa Simone Kelly who narrates the film with a grace and understanding that is genuinely moving. She eloquently reflects back on her life memories about an unhappy home and a mentally ill mother incapable of loving her unconditionally.
Ms. Garbus, the director, offers numerous songs from her repertoire that highlight the talented jazz vocalist, but too often the filmmaker sacrifices these vivid live performances and never plays out the entire concert piece which undercuts the essence of Miss Simone legend. (There is a segment with Miss Simone singing Janis Ian's Stars that is so visceral and raw in its brilliance.) There are also some gaps about certain times in her life that would have been more riveting if the filmmaker have been granted more access to the early archives of this singer. Nevertheless, the film tells a gripping story of a woman who found fame and fortune but lost her way to find real happiness.
Ms. Garbus' tribute to one of the greatest jazz vocalists is worthy of your attention.
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