This powerful film on the artist, activist, and icon Nina Simone uses simple, direct means to succeed where other documentaries fail. Director Liz Garbus (Bobby Fischer Against The World, Love, Marilyn) has collected heart-wrenching interview clips with Simone’s daughter, ex-husband, collaborators, and supporters, seamlessly weaving them throughout a wealth of archival footage and previously unheard recordings. What you won’t see are the unnecessary animated interludes or live action re-enactments awkwardly shoehorned into many modern day docs. The story of Miss Simone speaks for itself and then some.
"My mother was Nina Simone 24/7 and that’s where it became a problem."
Though she started to play classical piano as a young child, the transformation of Eunice Waymon truly began when she was denied a scholarship to the Curtis Institute of Music because of her skin colour. With no option outside of finding work to help her poverty-stricken family pay the rent, the 19-year-old took on a nightly gig as a dive bar musician. For the first of several times throughout her career, necessity became the mother of invention, as she started singing at the request of the club owner. Wishing to hide these dalliances with “the devil’s music” (a.k.a. jazz, pop songs, and standards) from her mother, she adopted the stage name Nina Simone.
“Dad was the original Puff Daddy.”
Following the success of her recording of George Gershwin’s “I Loves You, Porgy” Simone was courted by a fridge-shaped man with a pencil thin moustache named Andrew Stroud. Stepping down from his position as a New York police detective, he swooped in first as her husband and then her manager. Stroud’s hard-hustling tactics drove Simone’s career to the next level, but it came at a cost, as the non-stop schedule of performing and recording turned into physical exhaustion. Sleeping pills to come down and “yellow pills” to hit the stage became the necessary prescription.
“Andrew protected me from everyone but himself.”
In some of the film’s most harrowing scenes told through Simone’s voice-over and letters, she recounts her experiences of being beaten and sexually assaulted by her husband. Daughter Lisa Simone Kelly paints an unflinching portrait of both parents, as she believes Simone could have left at any time, and later mentions the physical and psychological abuse she suffered from her mother’s hands. This was a tumultuous period, but it only hinted at what was to come.
“As the Civil Rights movement swung into high gear, she swung with it.”
The first widely recognized indication of Simone’s political beliefs arrived with the song “Mississippi Goddam.” Her righteous response to the murder of activist Medgar Evers and the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama quickly lit a fuse of its own. Though it was boycotted by record stores and radio stations, with boxes of 45s returned snapped in half, it became the first of many equality anthems. Others heard here include “Backlash Blues” (with lyrics written by Langston Hughes), “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” (based on an unfinished play by Lorraine Hansberry) and the immortal “Strange Fruit” (recently sampled in controversial fashion by Kanye West).
“They don’t know that I’m dead and that my ghost is holding on.”
The final years of Simone’s life are the most difficult to discuss, yet this film pulls no punches. After leaving her professional career in America, Simone moved to Liberia before settling in Europe. Her unpredictable behaviour (including firing a gun at a record company executive) was finally diagnosed as bipolar disorder and manic depressive illness, buzzwords of the time. After a much-needed escape, she returned to perform with explosive spontaneity. As one interview declares, “when she didn’t have her medicine she could get musically even further out.” The most potent example is a story of Simone playing one song on the piano while singing a different song’s melody simultaneously, blowing the mind of Miles Davis.
“If they couldn’t listen, fuck it!”
With protests in the streets of Baltimore and an upcoming Nina Simone biopic heavily criticized for Hollywood-sanitizing, the messages behind her music are just as important today as they’ve ever been. This unswerving depiction of the transcendent talent is a perfect place to start or to be reminded.