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Wednesday, February 01, 2017

What Happened, Miss Simone?

I'm catching up with Oscar nominees, but it occurred to me there were a few from previous years that were never released on DVD. It turns out they are Netflix productions, and you can watch them on streaming, but not on DVD. Now that I have joined the 21st century and have streaming, I'm going to catch up with them, too.

The first is What Happened, Miss Simone? a documentary by Liz Garbus about the legendary jazz singer Nina Simone. I had heard the name, but didn't know much about her, so I found it pretty interesting, even if the style of the film is pretty familiar (the winner last year was another musician bio, Amy, about Amy Winehouse).

Nina Simone was born Eunice Waymon in North Carolina. She was a musical prodigy, and wanted to be the first African-American woman to make it as a classical pianist. She was refused entry to a conservatory in Philadelphia because she was black, so she took a job in Atlantic City playing popular songs. She was told to sing, so she did, and that became her ticket to fame (she changed her name because she didn't want her family finding out she was singing "devil's music.")

She became very popular in the early '60s. She married an ex-policeman who became her manager, but who also beat her. She was energized by the Civil Rights movement, and became increasingly militant. She wrote and recorded a song called "Mississippi God Dam," which is much more pointed that any of the other songs that were recorded around then. She was not into non-violence.

Her activism caused her career to dry up. She eventually moved to Africa, then to Switzerland and finally Paris, where she died at the age of 70.

The film is buoyed by the subject matter, but doesn't deviate too much from the form. Garbus chooses to begin the film with a comeback concert at Montreux in 1976. Simone walks out on the stage, looking like an African queen, curtsying formally, before sitting down at the piano. We get lots of old interviews with her, performance footage (amusingly, she performed on Hugh Hefner's Playboy's Penthouse) and there were interviews with those who knew her, including her daughter, who says she thought both of her parents were nuts.

Simone's voice was magnificent, but she never really got over the regret that she didn't become a classical pianist. For most of the life depicted on film, she never was very happy. But it's a good introduction for those who don't know her, and a must for her fans.

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