you ever heard Nina Simone live, you should have been on your best behavior,
because she could vibe an inattentive audience member harder than Keith Jarrett.
In all honesty, anyone not fully appreciating her classically trained piano
chops and deep smoky vocals deserved a bit of shaming. A forceful presence on
stage, Simone knew what she wanted and maintained high expectations—fact we should
all respect. However, the tumult in her personal life also contributed to her
uncompromising and sometimes self-sabotaging public persona. Through extensive
archival recordings and interviews with her closest associates, Liz Garbus
paints a complex portrait of the jazz and soul diva in What Happened, Miss Simone? (trailer here), which screens
during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.
could see Simone’s classical attack in the way she deconstructed and recombined
standards into something entirely new and rhapsodic. Her great ambition was to
play a classical recital at Carnegie Hall, but that path was not open to an
African American child of the Jim Crow Yellow Dog Democrat South. She never
really forgave America for that, even though she eventually played the hallowed
hall as the folk and soul influenced jazz vocalist we remember so well.
she indeed had a lot of success with standards like “I Loves You Porgy” and “My
Baby Just Cares for Me” and a strong manager in her husband, Andy Stroud. Unfortunately,
their union took a sinister turn, with Stroud, the ex-cop, becoming increasingly
violent as Simone became more politically radicalized. Although the late Stroud’s
abuse is well documented in the film, he has a chance to speak for himself
through never before seen footage shot for a prior unrealized documentary
project. In fact, the film is remarkably balanced for a music doc, fully
exploring Simone’s own abusive behavior to her daughter, executive producer
Lisa Simone Kelly. It also suggests some of Simone’s late career scuffling was
partly her own fault, as well as a function of her late diagnosed bipolar
disorder. To Garbus’s credit, this is definitely not the stuff of hagiography.
and her producers tracked down a lot of never before heard interviews conducted
for Stephen Cleary, the “co-author” of her memoir and an earlier aborted autobiography.
However, the holy cats centerpiece of the film is the 1976 Montreux Concert
(wherein Simone pretty much gives everyone what-for), which has been available
in full on DVD since 2006. Still, Garbus gives more context to better
understand the off-stage dynamics at play.
For music fans, some of the best sequences
feature Al Schackman, her longtime guitarist and musical director, who survived
a baptism of fire to become her close musical collaborator. That is what the
spirit of jazz is all about. After watching Miss
Simone, you will also probably find “My Baby Just Cares for Me” is stuck in
your head, but that’s not a bad thing. Highly recommended for fans of jazz
vocals, What Happened, Miss Simone screens
again today (in an hour and a half) and next Friday (1/30) in Park City and
tonight and next Saturday (1/31) in Salt Lake, as part of this year’s Sundance.
Labels: Documentary, Nina Simone, Sundance '15