Saturday, 19 March 2016

Film Review & Theme Park: What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015)

© Netflix | Source: Indiewire

USA; 101 min.; documentary, biography, music
Director: Liz Garbus
Cinematography: Igor Martinovic
Interviewees: Lisa Simone Kelly, Al Shackman, Stanley Crouch, Gerrit De Bruin, Dick Gregory, Attallah Shabazz, Ilyasah Shabazz 

“It’s just a feeling. It’s just a feeling. It’s like how do you tell somebody how it feels to be in love? How are you going to tell anybody who has not been in love how it feels to be in love? You cannot do it to save your life. You can describe things but you can’t tell them. But you know it when it happens. That’s what I mean by free. I’ve had a couple of times onstage when I really felt free, and that’s something else. That’s really something else! Like, all... all... Like... like... I tell you what freedom is to me. No fear! I mean, really no fear. If I could have that half of my life... No fear.” – Nina Simone 

March is Women’s History Month, and we over here at BSP thought, why not discuss movies that celebrate the life and work of some strong, intelligent, creative and all around fascinating women. Of course, we always like to discuss these kind of movies because we simply love us some tough gals all year round. But since this special occasion deserves a shout-out, Squuls, Nata Lie and I have decided to each pick a movie dealing with a real-life woman and review it for you this month.

I chose the late musician and civil rights activist Nina Simone. Not only is she at the centre of a very recent Hollywood scandal – Zoe Saldana, the lead actress of the upcoming biopic Nina, came under fire for her performance in blackface – no, she’s also the star of this year’s Oscar-nominated documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?.

Speaking as a person who, beforehand, only knew Simone from some of her more popular songs such as “Feeling Good”, “I Put a Spell on You” or “My Baby Just Cares for Me”, it was interesting to be able to take a closer look at the woman with those enchanting, unconventional vocals and mad piano skills. I guess that, especially for a person who’s new to Simone’s biography, the documentary directed by Liz Garbus is going to be helpful in understanding what made the musician tick.

Garbus mentions Simone’s youth in a Jim-Crow-dominated North Carolina, her first piano lessons and her desire to become the first black female classical pianist playing at Carnegie Hall. She covers her rejection from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia based on racial prejudice, her jobbing at bars in Atlantic City and her big break with her debut album Little Girl Blue in 1958.

But, most importantly, the documentary wonders what made a celebrated, gifted pop star such as Simone fall into oblivion after making it big. What happened, Miss Simone? is the initial question here, and Garbus finds possible answers in Simone’s dedication to the civil rights movement and her frequent calls for violent opposition, leading to her fall from grace with white audiences and the white music industry. Furthermore, if only marginally, Garbus explores Simone’s struggle with bipolar disorder, a condition that led to heavy mood swings and destructive behaviour, alienating her closest friends and, above all, her young daughter Lisa Simone Kelly.

The documentary mixes new interviews, for example with Lisa, Simone’s dear friends Al Shackman and Gerrit De Bruin or the two Malcolm X daughters Attallah and Ilyasah Shabazz, with rich archive footage from Simone’s abusive husband Andrew Stroud or civil rights activists such as Lorraine Hansberry, Martin Luther King Jr., Stokley Carmichael and Malcolm X. Last but not least, Simone’s presence in the film is created with the use of engaging concert scenes, photographs, insightful interview footage and personal notes from her diary. All the pieces taken together manage to create a beautifully complex image of Nina Simone as a strong, yet lost soul. A dedicated activist, an eruptive force. Smart and reflective, yet very emotional and physical. A masochistic woman in love with her violent husband. A sadistic mother, but also a good mother. A troubled mind shaken by disease. A misanthrope. A woman in touch with her heritage and in love with her people. Most importantly, a genius musician.

Just like this year’s Oscar-winning documentary feature Amy about the late British singer Amy Winehouse, What Happened, Miss Simone? draws a link between different stages in Simone’s life and her songs. The 1959 hit single "I Loves You, Porgy" is focused on when the film deals with Simone’s rise to fame. “I Put a Spell on You” is incorporated to describe her ambivalent relationship with her husband. “Mississippi, Goddam” accompanies her frustration with racial injustices and “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” celebrates her love of herself and her fellow African Americans. While this mode of narrative becomes slightly predictable after a while, it is still realised so skilfully that it never has an exhausting effect. It rather goes to show how much of Simone’s soul seems to be entangled in her songs and thus gives a possible reason why her performances always feel so real and true.

Partly produced by Lisa Simone Kelly, it is refreshing to see how openly this documentary deals with the musician’s more unpleasant aspects: her moodiness, her psychological cruelty, her illness. Still, Simone Kelly is also far from condemning her mother for her actions. Director Garbus is given the possibility to approach Nina Simone from different angles which turns What Happened, Miss Simone? into an intriguing viewing experience. Granted that there’s certainly room for a more in-depth exploration here and there, this documentary still does a beautiful job painting the portrait of a complex woman and the time she lived in.


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