Nina Simone’s complex life riveting in new Netflix documentary

23 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Nina Simone in spotlight at Sundance premiere.

Nina Simone was a flinty, complex, exasperating woman and her life proves as riveting as her songs in the Liz Garbus-directed Netflix documentary “What Happened, Miss Simone?” which opened the Sundance Film Festival with “Bob” Redford in attendance. Redford unceremoniously took to the stage in the cavernous Eccles Theater but was nowhere near a mic as he began speaking; festival director John Cooper shouted at him like a pet owner until Redford ambled back to the podium. “He wanders,” Cooper said, while Redford (who is starring in a film called “A Walk in the Woods” at this fest) made a plea for the importance of documentaries, which Sundance has indeed done much to advance. What Happened, Miss Simone? was greeted with a standing ovation at a gala screening at the film festival, which runs through February 1 in the Utah ski resort of Park City.

PARK CITY, UTAH—The Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris this month was “a wake-up” for people who believe in freedom of expression, Sundance founder Robert Redford says. The Simone film (which takes its title from a line by Maya Angelou) brings us to segregated 1940s North Carolina, where young Eunice Waymon was a piano prodigy, then to Atlantic City dives were Eunice discovered her singing was even more of an attraction than her playing, and became Nina. (She used a stage name because she didn’t want her devout mother to know she was singing “the Devil’s music.”) Managed by her husband, Andy, who quit his job in the NYPD to work for her, Simone became a celebrity singing torch songs in her slow, plaintive, resonant voice, but complained of being worked too hard after her daughter came along.

Drawing on previously unreleased footage and recordings, the movie traces Simone’s life from her youth as a classically trained pianist to crossover blue/soul/jazz songstress and 1960s black power figurehead. The medium once scorned by the film fraternity is now making what is incontrovertibly brilliant drama, and Redford admitted that it is “advancing father than major film-making.” “Television is film. Including extensive interviews with her daughter and close friends, it then recounts her downward spiral and battles with domestic abuse and mental illness, leading eventually to her diagnosis with bipolar disorder. “She struggled with demons, from inside and out,” said Oscar-nominated filmmaker Liz Garbus, a Sundance veteran whose previous movies include The Farm: Angola, USA (1998) and Love, Marilyn (2012). “Her life was a reflection of the legacy of racism in America but also of the extraordinary power that a righteous voice can have against even the most wicked historical legacy.” After separating from her husband and manager, Simone moved to Liberia in the early 1970s, but, after running out of money, headed north to Europe, first Switzerland and then France, struggling to get her career back on track. It’s not exclusive to Paris,” said Redford, 78, answering a questioner who sought his reaction to the recent slayings of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists by Muslim extremists angered by the magazine’s artistic provocations. “That was a sad event.

Ironically, it was an advert — for Chanel No 5 perfume — that resurrected her fortunes, as its use of her song My Baby Just Cares for Me brought Simone renewed fame from the late 1980s. It’s harder for artists to find their way in the film industry,” he said, adding: “TV and independent film are running neck-and-neck both in the talent they use and in their freshness and quality.” Smiling and dressed in denim – a change from his usual skiwear – the 78-year-old actor, film-maker and activist seemed to relish the challenge though, and showed no signs of handing over the reins of the event he helped found nearly 40 years ago, even though his retirement has been anticipated for the last few years. Then the film lurches: Perhaps as a way of channeling her anger at being abused, Simone joined the protests over the terror bombing that killed four black girls at a Birmingham church, wrote and performed a protest song called “Mississippi Goddam” and suffered a concomitant loss of sales.

But much of the movie centres on the early years and, in particular, her transformation from jazz singer into civil rights firebrand — despite the efforts of her abusive husband, who wanted her to keep making the hits. Indeed, the word “change” featured a lot in Redford’s remarks, but in a lengthy anecdote inspired by the recent diversity debate that followed an almost all-white list of Academy Award nominees, Redford revealed that the impetus for his festival can be credited to the old Hollywood, not the new. “I was very fortunate as an actor for hire to be in what was then the mainstream,” he recalled. “That’s all there was in the 1960s and 70s – just the mainstream, which meant studio films. And that’s how it is with the films. “You’ll see a lot of films here that are going to upset other people,” Redford continued, dressed as usual in denim attire reminiscent of his Sundance Kid gunslinger character from the movies, but also sporting professorial spectacles. “But that’s OK. Simone ended up based in Paris after her late-career comeback, and continued to perform in the 1990s — her last album, A Single Woman, was released in 1993.

At times the film can be a little slow and repetitive, it trickles out in its closing minutes instead of finding a satisfying or emphatic ending and the overall glum mood isn’t particularly agreeable. Still, the richness of Simone’s cantankerous personality cries out for star treatment, and it’s very easy to picture major directors as well as every black actress in the right age group being tantalized by this movie and its suitability for being remade as a narrative feature.

In the greener years, when I was doing major studio roles, I was able to ask the studios if I could make a smaller film about a more complicated subject. This doc doesn’t quite make Simone a tragic heroine, but it comes close enough that one can picture a great actress making the audience weep for how Simone was betrayed and then betrayed herself.

And then, in 1979, maybe, you could see it coming – there was cable and video on demand, and they were coming on real fast.” At the same time, he said, Hollywood – “as it once was” – was beginning to shrink. “It was beginning to become more centralised. This weekend will also bring the premiere of Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, an insider’s account of the controversial Scientology religion.

Directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side), the film has been condemned sight unseen by Scientology, which took out a full-page ad in the New York Times denouncing it. Other hot docs here will cover the shooting of a black youth by a white man who objected to his rap music (Marc Silver’s 3½ Minutes); the accelerating extinction of various species around the world (Louie Psihoyos’s Racing Extinction); and the potential of unchecked social media to deceive and hurt people in unforeseen ways (Sophie Deraspe’s The Amina Profile). Redford said that one reason he brought Sundance to Park City more than 30 years ago, originally showing films in just one movie house, the funky Egyptian Theatre that hosted Thursday’s press conference, was because he wanted to give filmmakers a respite from the madness of the world. “We brought it here in the mountains because … they would be free, they would feel like there’s a safe place outside of where the action is, so to speak.” I asked him if he ever gets impatient waiting for meaningful change.

So many of the films of Sundance 2015 dig deep into issues that have long bedevilled humanity. “Since change, I think, is inevitable and it’s happening, sometimes I find myself a little bit ahead of it, wishing it were happening faster. First, because I could never have afforded to do it in an urban environment, but, second, I wondered what would happen if you brought filmmakers into nature – see what that interaction would do with their process.

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