Sunday, July 5, 2015


This Nina Simone documentary is one of the best I've seen in quite a while.  It's revealing, relevant, surprising, sad and memorable.  It doesn't treat the internationally famous music artist as an idol without faults.  This one is honest  Some of the honesty comes from people who knew and loved her.  One person is her daughter who says that her mother was "brilliant" and could be a "monster."  When I was a teen, my mother had a description of Nina Simone's stage power that I've never forgotten.  Mom said, "Nina Simone is the only performer who does a show and the audience goes in hoping she'll like them instead of the other way around."  I saw exactly what my mother meant in the section of the doc that has footage of her on stage singing the song "Stars" by Janis Ian.  Miss Simone was fierce, majestic and unapologetically black.  The title of this feature, by the way, comes from a Maya Angelou statement.  This Netflix documentary opens with Simone being asked "What's freedom mean?"  She answers, "No fear!"
Nina Simone was a fearless, beautiful performer who did not have the traditional look that mainstream society of the 1950s and 60s considered beautiful.  She was a dark woman with alert eyes and a fullness of lips and nose.  And talent.  She knew segregation having grown up in the Jim Crow South.  She knew it up North too.
She was classically trained pianist who could play Bach, Beethoven and Debussy.  On stage, she blended folk music and jazz.  After the 1963 racist murder of 4 little girls in an Alabama church bombing, a crime recalled by many after last month's racist killing of 9 black people as they sat in a Charleston, South Carolina church, Nina Simone blended politics and the Civil Rights Movement into her compositions and performances.  This made her less commercially marketable on radio stations than other vocalists such as Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight.  Still, she kept the fire in her bones aflame.  Said Simone, "How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?"  Here's a trailer.
This dynamic genius entertainer took her stage name from the Oscar-winning French actress Simone Signoret.  She won the Best Actress Oscar for A Room at the Top (1959).
Nina was called "The High Priestess of Soul."  We learn of the personal demons she had the fight.  She was a physically abused wife and mother.  She had bouts with booze, depression, pills and smashing things up.  She could be a physical menace when she lost her temper.  There were periods when she wanted sex all the time.  It took a while before anyone -- including herself --  discovered that she was clinically bipolar.

Director Liz Garbus acquired some excellent archive footage, plus she shows us the beginnings of the singer/activist.  We see and hear what made her voice, her delivery, so unique and iconic.  We come to know the social pressures that shaped it like heat shaping glass into a fine object.  We see how Nina Simone became Nina Simone.  This is what we didn't get in the recent HBO biopic on Bessie Smith starring Queen Latifah.  Then we get the rockiness of her life.  Nina was Nina onstage and off.  Like other women with supersized legendary talent such as Bette Davis, Judy Garland and Edith Piaf, that probably could be exhausting for relatives.

She was friends with legendary people -- Dr. Martin Luther King, A Raisin in the Sun playwright Lorraine Hansberry, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin.  She had to sing at Westbury Music Fair in New York just three days after Dr. King's assassination.  She sang at the historic March on Selma.  There's footage of both events in the documentary.

The question posed in the title in a statement from Maya Angelou is answered in this documentary.  Thank you, Miss Garbus.  Ms. Simone's gripping, politically edged work is just as fresh and relevant now as it was in the 1960s.  That, when you think about it, is a sad statement on race relations in our country.  But that's the way it is.  The problems still exist -- and she, as an artist, did her damnedest, to make us face the problems and root them out.  Plus, she could also be oh, so entertaining.  Millions of us remember her singing in a popular TV commercial for Chanel No. 5 fragrances back in the day.

One last thing,  the racial diversity -- or the lack thereof -- in Hollywood was a big topic earlier this year after the Oscar  nominations came out.  I thought about Nina Simone.  Why?  Viola Davis, 2-time Oscar nominee, is one of several black actresses who turned to television when Hollywood had no good scripts for her to consider.

Watch What Happened, Miss Simone?  Tell me if you agree that this acclaimed singer's life rates a big screen biopic and Viola Davis should play her.  That's my casting idea.  See this Netflix documentary.  You'll be amazed at how significant the work of this late entertainer is in these modern times in which we remind America that "Black lives matter."  I leave you with a popular song by Miss Simone, one used in the Chanel No. 5 ad.

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