Sundance Film Review: ‘What Happened, Miss Simone?’

23 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

A look at the Academy Awards and the Sundance kids.

“Sometimes I sound like gravel and sometimes I sound like coffee and cream,” Nina Simone remarks of her signature husky tenor at one point in Liz Garbus’ documentary “What Happened, Miss Simone?” And it is that voice, spoken and sung, which guides us through Garbus’ meticulously researched, tough-love portrait of the brilliant but troubled folk/jazz/soul diva, drawing on a vast archive of audio interviews, diary pages and performance footage that allows for Simone (who died of cancer in 2003) to answer the title question in her own unmistakable words.Richard Linklater, right, and daughter Lorelei Linklater, at the premiere of the film “Boyhood” during the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, in Park City, Utah on Jan. 19, 2014. A most satisfying rendering of a complex cultural legacy, “Miss Simone” will reach audiences via Netflix following its opening-night Sundance premiere. And the festival’s founder, Robert Redford, had a lot of thoughts, as always, on the topics of storytelling and cinematic diversity – Sundance’s raisons d’être.

Garbus, who previously investigated the intersection of madness, genius and celebrity in documentaries about Marilyn Monroe (“Love, Marilyn”) and the chess master Bobby Fischer (“Bobby Fischer Against the World”), has perhaps her richest subject yet in Simone, whose life and career were predicated on resisting the very sort of labels and categories that biographies, by their very nature, are wont to apply. After the screening and concert, patrons joined festival filmmakers and jurors at the Stein Eriksen Lodge, a tony resort in Deer Valley, for the annual “Artist at the Table” fundraiser dinner for the Sundance Institute. But Garbus embraces Simone in all her multitudes and contradictions — or at least as many of them as can be comfortably squeezed into a 100-minute running time. Pat Mitchell, board chair of the institute, greeted the crowd by calling Sundance “fundamentally a community,” while Keri Putnam, executive director of the institute, said she could feel “the electric energy of the evening” and the “anticipation of discovery” of films in the next two weeks.

This year, “Whiplash” and “Boyhood” — both Sundance premieres — are among the eight best picture nominees. “Boyhood” is considered a favorite to win. She begins with the young Eunice Waymon, a working-class child of Jim Crow-era North Carolina, who exhibited a prodigious gift for classical piano studies and dreamed of becoming the first black female pianist to grace the stage of Carnegie Hall. 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. Simone would eventually make it to Carnegie Hall — albeit as a pop artist— in a career that saw her evolve from a jazz virtuoso (fashioning an unlikely chart-topping hit out of the Gershwins’ “I Loves You, Porgy”) to a fiery protest singer who rubbed elbows with the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael. 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.

On stage, she commanded the kind of hushed reverence more commonly associated with classical performers (and could storm off in a huff if she didn’t receive it). He said the institute continues to inspire and influence him, which is why he took 12 days away from editing his current film, “Beasts of No Nation,” to be here and serve on a jury.

But as with many similarly gifted artists throughout history, Simone’s professional success seemed to amplify rather than ease a deep-set self-doubt and emotional instability, setting her on a gradual collision course with herself. The evening ended with remarks by musical-theater composer Jeanine Tesori, co-creator of the musical “Fun Home,” a show based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel that she developed at the Sundance theater labs. His wife, Sibylle Szaggars Redford, is the artistic director for a special event, “The Way of the Rain,” which is billed as an exploration of climate change through performance art. Or, as daughter Lisa Simone Kelly deftly puts it, “My mother was Nina Simone 24/7, and that’s where it became a problem.” Especially in its first hour, where the archival footage is at its richest and most varied, the movie envelops you in a beautifully edited rush of Simone — recounting her lonely, somewhat ostracized childhood, making her debut at the Newport Jazz Festival, explaining what it means to her to be “free” on stage.

She brought on performers Michael Cerveris, Beth Malone and Emily Skeggs to perform two numbers from the musical, “Telephone Wire” and “I’m Changing My Major to Joan.” The musical opens on Broadway April 19. Garbus is particularly sharp and unsentimental on the subject of Simone’s complex, codependent relationship with Andrew Stroud, the former New York cop who would become her second husband, manager and (by many accounts) her tormentor — a hard-driving task master who pushed Simone towards greater and greater stardom and who could turn violent when she failed to obey. Yet it’s also clear that there was, at one time, real love between them, and that Simone was already suffering from the bipolar disorder she would not be formally diagnosed with until the 1980s. Redford said of the festival’s decision to play “A Walk in the Woods,” which is about two friends hiking the Appalachian Trail. “That was his choice, not mine,” he added, pointing to Mr.

Other than Simone Kelly, and a repurposed interview with Stroud, Garbus limits the third-party talking heads to Simone’s close friends and collaborators (including her longtime guitarist and musical director Al Shackman), but smartly resists turning the movie into a pageant of present-day testimonials about the singer’s influence and legacy. While the Toronto International Film Festival and Telluride will continue to be harbingers of major awards contenders from major studios, mainstream success for an indie film festival is challenging to maintain year after year. “It’ll be interesting to see how they follow last year,” said Davis. “That actually kind of puts pressure on the film festival to keep up with that. Mostly, she just lets Simone take the stage, reasoning that the best way to understand her is through her songs — performances in which Simone seems to be pouring out every ounce of herself, the music flowing through her like an electric current, her voice echoing forth as if from some place deep inside the earth.

Watching her, you marvel that she didn’t burn out sooner — and maybe she would have, had she not become radicalized by the 1960s civil rights movement, which took her music in an overtly political direction and made her a hero of the revolutionary black left. But heard again today, songs like the fiery “Mississippi Goddam” and the hopeful “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” sound as urgent as if they’d been written only yesterday, and they carry Simone’s voice forward into another era of black struggle in America. Somewhere, one suspects, Miss Simone is smiling. (Documentary) A Netflix Documentary release of a RadicalMedia production in association with Moxie Firecracker.

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