Greetings again from the darkness. Classical pianist, extraordinary singer, highly sought after live performer, Civil Rights activist, and inspiration to so many … it’s only fitting that Nina Simone is now the subject of an Oscar nominated documentary. Talented filmmaker Liz Garbus (also Oscar nominated for 1998’s The Farm: Angola, USA) provides a biography that is both a deep-dig and somewhat gentle look at this fascinating and troubled woman.
Born Eunice Waymon in North Carolina during the Jim Crow era, she was the church pianist at age 4, and later studied classical piano with the dream of becoming the first black female classical pianist to play Carnegie Hall. While attending Julliard, she worked at an Atlantic City bar where, in an effort to hide the gig from her parents, she created the stage name Nina Simone (after the popular French actress Simone Signoret). It was also at this bar where she was first forced to sing … a step that changed the course of her life.
The film begins by showing her return to the stage at the1976 Montreaux Festival in Switzerland after a seven year self-imposed exile (most recently in Liberia). We then head back to her humble childhood and follow her progression as she blends her Bach-influenced piano style with an expressive vocal style in jazz, gospel, pop, R&B and soul … resulting in the nickname “High Priestess of Soul”.
What we see is a woman with remarkable talent and ferocious drive who just never is satisfied with society or her place in it … despite the positive impact she had as a musician and activist. Ms. Garbus uses some rare archival performance footage … such as her singing “I Loves You Porgy” while appearing on Hugh Hefner’s “Playboy Penthouse” TV show and “Mississippi Goddam” during the march with Martin Luther King. We also hear Nina telling her own story through previously unheard audio recordings, and we have access to diary entries and personal letters. These are combined with insightful interviews from her ex-husband and manager Andrew Stroud, collaborators like Al Shackman (her guitarist) and George Wein (founder of Newport Jazz Festival), and her daughter Lisa Simone Kelly.
What we soon see is a combination of other-worldly talent and a woman filled with rage and depression, and who is isolated inside her own uneasiness. Her later diagnosis and medication for bi-polar syndrome allowed her to better function in those last years. Her lack of attentiveness to her kids is kind of glossed over, but we understand how it made sense for her kids to spend more time at the home of the Shabazz family (Malcolm X) than with their own parents.
It’s a shame that Ms. Simone could never appreciate her achievements, the impact she had in the Civil Rights movement and the inspiration her music brought to so many. Even playing Carnegie Hall was not enough for her as she wasn’t on stage as the classical pianist of her dreams. Her biggest mainstream musical recognition stemmed from her song “My Baby Just Cares for Me” being used for a1987 Chanel No. 5 advertisement, but fortunately the rest of us can understand her place in history as a rare talent and societal influencer. She truly put a spell on us.