‘Boyhood’ and ‘Whiplash,’ Sundance-to-Oscar Path Improves

24 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Nina Simone documentary a powerful portrait of the artist.

PARK CITY, Utah (AP) — An Academy Award nomination is an incomparable stamp of approval for any film — and for an indie feature coming out of the Sundance Film Festival, in some cases, it’s a downright miracle. Like a well-mastered greatest hits album, director Liz Garbus’ biographical documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? captures the major musical highs of the singer Nina Simone’s career, while providing competent liner notes on her story.Sundance Kids — named after festival founder and original “Sundance Kid” Robert Redford — was launched last year as a way to turn a new generation on to film. “Many adults who love the film festival look for opportunities to share that with their kids, grandkids and nieces and nephews,” he said. “They want them to see films that are different than what is offered at the multiplex and Hollywood.” This year, organizers expanded Sundance Kids, offering three films for youngsters and tweens, including the highly anticipated “Shaun the Sheep,” a spin-off from Aardman Animation’s popular “Wallace & Gromit” shorts. Viewers perhaps only familiar with Simone’s best-known songs – “My Baby Just Cares for Me”, say, or maybe the rousing “Mississippi Goddamn” – will walk away (or perhaps more accurately, switch off their TV sets and computers since it’s scheduled to premiere first later this year on Netflix) feeling like they got to know the High Priestess a bit better in both her glory and her darkest moments. (It was made with the cooperation of Simone’s estate and her daughter Lisa Simone Kelly is an executive producer.) However, more hardcore fans will feel the absence here both of some of her finest songs and more and interesting biographical details.

Given that Park City’s annual gathering of independent filmmakers, hard-to-please tastemakers and curious, altitude-sick out-of-towners has been a key player in turning nonfiction movies into a mainstream phenomenon — the list of significant docs this fest has launched is miles long — the eventual doubling down was no surprise. A classically trained pianist, accidental singer, passionate activist and often-lost soul, Simone’s many facets are illuminated in the film by director Liz Garbus, whose first film played at Sundance 16 years ago.

This year, “Whiplash” and “Boyhood” — both Sundance premieres — are among the eight best picture nominees. “Boyhood” is considered a favorite to win. As Robert Redford mentioned in his unusually brief opening remarks at last night’s first public screening at the Eccles Theater, he’s always wanted to erase the notion that documentaries aren’t “movies,” and giving the form a gala platform is yet another way of putting his money where his still remarkably photogenic mouth is. (Even odder than Redford’s brevity: The festival’s founder walked right past the podium and started addressing the crowd from the center of a dark stage, without a microphone. Coming on the heels of previous best picture nominations for Sundance films like “Precious,” ”Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “Winter’s Bone” over the past few years, the festival has become a breeding ground for awards candidates. But it is unlikely to be ranked up there with the best music-themed bio-docs, such as Martin Scorsese’s authoritative study of Bob Dylan, No Direction Home, Charlotte Zwerin’s Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser, or Kevin Macdonald’s Marley, which admittedly mostly unfold on a broader scale.

Simone, whose music you either know or should at least pretend to know for fear of being mocked as an uncultured rube, was born in segregated North Carolina and, by a stroke of luck, received classical piano training from the age of four. Young Ivan Drago, played by David Mazouz (“Gotham”), finds himself in the fantastic world of game invention, encountering the evil inventor Morodian (Joseph Fiennes), who is bent on destroying the city of Zyl. In 2014, for example, Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash” was programmed as the opening night film. “Because filmmakers, studios, producers are seeing a lot of Oscar movies begin to come out of Sundance, I think they’re looking at Sundance as a strategy to put the movies that they feel have a chance in the Sundance lineup,” said Davis. “In all the years I’ve been going to Sundance, I’ve never seen an opening night film as strong as ‘Whiplash.’ I feel like the festival was kind of making a statement but at the same time taking a risk by programming such a strong film right at the start of the festival,” he said. “Whiplash” in some ways is the ultimate Oscars Cinderella story. As scrupulously assembled as it is, it’s arguably not even director Garbus’ best work, lacking the passion of her debut The Farm: Angola, USA (1998) or the dizzying breadth of her recent Bobby Fischer Against the World (2011). Still known then by her given name, Eunice Waymon, she is shown walking across the train tracks that separated whites from blacks in her North Carolina hometown to reach the teacher’s home.

There’s also Norway’s “Operation Arctic.” Through a misunderstanding, 13-year-old Julia and her 8-year-old twin siblings, Ida and Sindre, are left on a deserted island and must find ways to survive winter weather, hungry polar bears and loneliness. What started as a short at the 2013 festival and premiered in feature form at the 2014 festival without a distributor lined up 12 months later gets singled out by the Academy as one of the best pictures of the year. “Because there are fewer dramas in theatrical release and one of the few places to see the new and the best of indie dramas is Sundance, then when it comes to Oscars, those dramas at Sundance gain even greater importance and visibility,” he said. What Miss Simone does have going for it is its unique access to extremely rare material, some of it never seen publicly before, including a surprisingly frank interview with her late husband Andrew Stroud from an abandoned documentary project, and audio clips from her interviews with Stephen Cleary, the co-author of her autobiography I Put a Spell on You.

Eunice Waymon dreamed of becoming the first black classical pianist in the United States, and she saw herself at Carnegie Hall — until she was denied admittance to the Curtis Institute of Music because of her race. Rostrum work displays excerpts from her diaries, presumably shown with permission from her estate, that illuminate her violent and tempestuous relationship with Stroud which led her to contemplate suicide at times. Children also can opt for headphones where they can listen to a reader. “We watched about 50 movies, some really great films, and it was a challenge to narrow it down to just three,” said Hubley, whose center has operated the year-round Tumbleweeds program and festival for children and youth since 2010. There’s a clear parallel here with Garbus’ Love, Marilyn (even down to the use of a comma in the title) which deployed actors reading excerpts from Marilyn Monroe’s diaries and notes. In this case, Simone’s actual voice comes across even more clearly, which is only apt given how very distinctive that rich, contralto, sugar-and-sandpaper voice was, whether it was singing or in conversation.

Despite her talent and the financial support of well-to-do patrons, she was rejected by the prestigious Curtis Institute in Philadelphia; that “early jolt of racism,” as Simone referred to the incident, became the first of several events to fuel an inexhaustible supply of anger at society. There are also many thrilling clips of Simone performing, sometimes smiling and dancing, transported by the music, but also glaring ferociously at her audience, calling out individuals daring to get out of their seats.

A summer gig at an Atlantic City bar gives birth to the blues chanteuse she’d eventually become, with the film tracing her rise to hit recording artist, jazz sensation, long-suffering wife (her manager/husband Andrew Stroud does not come off well), a major player in the Civil Rights movement, industry pariah, American ex-pat, playing-for-chump-change café performer and, eventually, a rediscovered legend. She probably would have hated the idea of people watching these clips on an internet platform that gives viewers the power to pause for bathroom breaks. Music docs often live or die by the footage they dig up of their performer(s), and the clips Garbus uses to chart Simone’s numerous rises and falls makes all the difference: a Playboy’s Penthouse episode of Hugh Hefner introducing the singer crooning her version of “I Loves You, Porgy”; Simone performing a fiery “Mississippi Goddam,” her reaction to the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church; a rendition of “The Backlash Blues,” in which the violence of her piano playing underlines the aggressiveness of the lyrics; a cri de couer take on “Why? (The King of Love Is Dead)” given on the day of Martin Luther King’s death.

He shrugged at her “wasting time” with civil rights activism when she could have been earning on the road – Simone performed her controversial Mississippi Goddamn, written in response to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, during the Selma-Montgomery march in the presence of Dr King. By the time we circle back to the Montreux footage, in which Simone stops dead in her tracks to glare down an audience member, we have an incredible sense of how dynamic she was as a live performer. “If they can’t listen, fuck ’em,” Simone says in one of numerous audio recordings the filmmaker uses as loose narration, and you sense her frustration that people are watching her but not actually hearing her. As the conflagration of the late 1960s grew more intense, Simone became more radicalised, at one point asking a black audience if they were ready to kill for black liberation. Although due air time is given to her hard-scrabble upbringing, the racism that she encountered in her youth that radicalized her later, and her abusive marriage, the film doesn’t shy away from how she could also act monstrously herself.

Seeing the woman in action on a stage, whether lost in some internal reverie or fully engaged as she slap-tickles the ivories, it seems impossible not to be completely enthralled by her on all levels. Daughter Simone Kelly speaks frankly to camera not just about how her father beat Nina but also how Nina later beat her when she was a child, and the narrative is salted with references to her many tantrums and violent interactions with colleagues. You can sense that Garbus is equally mesmerized, even as she delves into the less-than-savory aspects of Simone’s personal life and years of mental instability. The voiceovers and testimonies from various close friends and family — notably her daughter — attest to serious bouts of depression, the dishing out of abuse and how the more drained she became from a grueling touring schedule, the more she started coming apart at the seams. The film’s songbook encompasses a few rarer tunes, but oddly there’s no performance here of one her most signature songs, “Four Women,” which she actually composed herself.

If anything, you wish What Happened dove even deeper into the ups and downs of her later years (the last decade or so of her life is covered in a few brief scenes and then wrapped up with a brief disclaimer). Her most important and longstanding musical collaborator, guitarist Al Schackman, is on hand to give an insider’s insight into her immense skills as a musician, but some viewers may feel like a little more time might have been spent on exploring her work and immense talent in a more informed, musicological way. Any subject as complicated and multitude-containing as Simone is going to present problems for a documentarian trying to cover everything in two hours, and it’s easy to spot the places where Garbus comes up a bit short. Yet the balancing act she comes up with is still impressive: This is neither an out-and-out hagiography nor a bid to present Simone as nothing but a martyr to social ills and self-destructiveness.

A post-festival distribution deal is already in place with Netflix and, frankly, that’s the perfect format for Garbus’s by-the-numbers storytelling. The Sundance folks had been promising a “surprise” following the screening, and following a standing ovation for Garbus, the screen lifted to reveal John Legend at a piano, ready to perform three Simone-covered songs. In his hands, “Lilac Wine” becomes a woozy, punch-drunk ode to the fact that it’s better to have loved and lost, etc.; considering the song, originally written for a revue, is so closely associated with Simone and, later, Jeff Buckley, Legend does his best to leave his stamp on it. “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” comes off as positively joyful despite the lyrics (“I wish I could break/All the chains holdin’ me”), and his slow-burn version of Simone’s torch-song arrangement of “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” should become a standard part of his repertoire if it isn’t already. Approaching the front of the stage and posing for pictures arm-in-arm with Garbus and Redford, the musician looked like he’d just taken the audience to church.

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