But When She Was Bad . . .
In their headlong proliferation to equal maybe surpass the output of fictions, non-fictions have abandoned early Flaherty narrative structure as well as fallen into a limited few topic subsets. Among such groupings is the documentary life of a single famous person, often limited to a specific phase of the life even though there may be included stills from earlier or later. Dead a dozen years now and for whatever reasons aside from her immense talent but uneven output and controversial career stance, Nina Simone has three recent films each aiming to “reveal the real” woman and artist, plus a once-rumored fourth by her brother Sam and yet another in Cynthia Mort’s polemical “love story artist’s journey into herself.”
2010 Nina Simone: College Performances & Interviews was produced and début-directed by ex-husband, –manager, -producer Andrew Stroud, who claimed to have much more material than was included. Screened in rain-location Mount Morris Presbyterian Church by Maysles Cinema in co-sponsorship with local organizations, and built around concerts at black Morehouse College and overwhelmingly white UMass/Amherst, the sixty minutes showcase the talent and are understandably kinder to the now late Stroud than the other two films.
From Liz Garbus, and titled from a 1970 Maya Angelou article, What Happened, Miss Simone? paints a different picture, even to simply the stage name -- out of thin air according to the ex, but here derived from a boyfriend’s pet name of Niña and actress Simone Signoret to hide her non-church Atlantic City performances from her mother. This newer, longer take includes archival interviews with its subject -- some of them repeated from the earlier film -- and many current others, including longtime music director and guitarist Al Schackman, friends and Mount Vernon neighbors Malcolm X’s Shabazz daughters, and, most essential, only child (and friend Lorraine Hansberry’s goddaughter) Lisa Simone Kelly (b. Lisa Celeste Stroud).
Unhesitatingly championing her mother as a singer second to absolutely no one, Lisa bravely opens about the obvious wounds, her parents’ rocky marriage and disagreements about the direction of mother’s career, father’s physical abuse of mother and mother’s “sex attacks” on him and “monster” mental abuse of her and, in what would nowadays be diagnosed as schizophrenia or perhaps bipolar manic depression, the demons that dogged and debilitated the singer-pianist-activist.
A few mostly b&w stills illustrate the young Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Jim Crow Tryon, North Carolina, her drive and discipline to be a classical concert pianist, and the racial barriers to that dream in the North as well (although the classical techniques admixed a unique keyboard brilliance to the blues-jazz-soul of the voice).
Oddly omitting the rest of her family, the documentary cites the 1963 Birmingham church bombing and assassination of Medgar Evers as turning points. Like Dick Gregory -- interviewed -- and Joan Baez, she sacrificed soaring popularity in order to advocate change, composed the defiant “Mississippi Goddam,” sang “The Backlash Blues” from friend Langston Hughes’s lyrics, and, though a follower of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., told that “King of Love” that “I am not nonviolent.”
Added to a stage presence that became more unpredictable and antagonistic, the insistence on social-political activism from such a bully pulpit made it difficult to secure bookings and, with marital and financial difficulties, led to self-exile in Liberia, Barbados and then Europe.
Her voice changed, neither for better nor worse but just different, she felt, after Birmingham Sunday morning, not enough to keep her from performing around the world, though by the end it was Dior and Chanel ads which kept her artistry in the public eye. There were also cantankerous brushes with the law around her home in Aix-en-Province. Temperamental, passionate, confrontational talents like hers and Callas’ are forgiven in art and love but not in social taboos and politics.
Two weeks and a half after WH,MS? opened theatrically, The Amazing Nina Simone had its third showing. Undistributed, it had previously been seen only in Tryon and southern France. The band shell in Jackie Robinson Park proved providentially appropriate, for the singer had boarded just across the street on first coming to Harlem. In the Outdoor Music and Screening Series, co-presented by Maysles Cinema, African Film Festival and Reel Harlem, the event opened with an hour of DJ Reborn and then five of Nina’s songs rocked up live by the quintet of her brother and band member Sam Waymon (the score composer and wonderful Pastor Luther Williams in Ganja & Hess). Director-writer-producer Jeff L. Lieberman prefaced the hundred-ten minutes with his own Vancouver introduction to her music; indicated that Amiri Baraka, David Frost and Maya Angelou had died before their agreed interview inclusions; and talked about grassroots fundraising. He closed, for the documentary to open on an inflatable balloon screen, with the remark that a biopic of which he had seen the script contained fabrications, which Sam seconded, both of them avoiding any mention of Mort’s name. (Controversy about that film begins around light-skinned, more Hollywood palatable Zoe Saldana playing darker Nina after first choice, box-office-bait Mary J. Blige bowed out because of scheduling conflicts. Daughter Lisa would have voted for Viola Davis or Kimberly Elise but indicated her mother’s personal choice was Whoopi Goldberg. Nina believed herself slighted, even by Ebony and Jet, in favor of blander Aretha Franklin.)
Some material is essentially the same in both documentaries, neither better nor worse but equally good and sometimes from a different angle. Each film offers bytes of information lacking in the other, as for example, a first marriage to a sponging white European, restraint in a straightjacket, breast cancer, a dicey caregiver, and openly but not at all sensationally dwelt-upon affairs with other women. A major difference is that Lisa “would not be interviewed” for the second doc and that there is almost no Shabazz input. Absent in the released Garbus, Nina’s four brothers comment -- there were three other sisters -- with Dr. Sam -- she, too, insisted on the honorary title -- the most frequent, “one of few who could call her by her real name, Eunice.” Of necessity, Stroud figures in but is less of a presence, while there is more, harder, blunter consideration of the financial and mental collapse marking the later, nomad years, suicide attempts, and natural death at seventy.
Chanel and Before Sunset had the sense to use, and benefit from, the voice “throaty, sweet, bitter, bitchy, subtle or sexy, sociopolitical soul or broke-dick blues, a whisper, a scream.” Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia honored her too late, but, together with a growing catalogue of book and CD releases, these two films may start the bandwagon rolling and, also too late, the money coming in. “Talent,” Simone said onstage at the Royal Albert Hall, “is a burden not a joy. I am not of this planet. I do not come from you. I am not like you.” She claimed to be the reincarnation of an Egyptian queen: “A queen from some time-dead Egyptian night/Walks once again.” There was only one Nina Simone, come from heaven when she was good.
(Released by Netflix; not rated by MPAA.)