Back in January, I more or less idly began watching a documentary on Netflix about Nina Simone – and was right from the start transfixed by her words:
“I’ll tell you what freedom is to me – no fear!” – Nina Simone
From those opening comments in “What happened to you Miss Simone?” I was glued to the screen. One of the words most used by the singer herself is “compelling” – and it fits her appearances. (I’m reposting my thoughts on it, as a friend recently saw it on Netflix and was blown away by it.)
Nina Simone as an Artist
Musically, she is electrifying: confident, powerful, emotional, unpredictable, distinctive. Like all great artists in any genre (and this is something someone needs to tell warbly teenage wannabe popstars)
- she inherited powerful art skills through her family (literature words and performance as her mother was a Bible preacher)
- has invested depth into her art by years of studying and acquiring classical technique (classical piano study),
- responding to her times and national culture (Civil Rights),
- bringing in her most personal experiences, both painful and joyful
- persistence through difficult times
- having a deep spiritual aspect (she began leading worship in church aged 4),
- befriending and discussing with leading cultural voices (poets, writers, political activists),
- pulling from an eclectic range of styles (blues, jazz, classical, pop, Broadway, film tunes, folk songs),
- authoring her own songs,
- working hard for decades,
- having something to say and saying it without compromise….
well, by the time you put all those ingredients together and look around for someone else carrying the same mix – you are looking at a handful of people. And whether painters, writers, musicians – they are all world-class, astounding, generation-defining.
Another example would be Picasso – son of a painting tutor, by the time he was school-leaving age he had learnt, studied and absorbed all the skills and history of technique – in the next few years he developed through deep poverty and lifechanging tragedy (suicide of friend Casegemas and death from cancer of his main love) – and spent the rest of his life exploring how to paint what he felt, pulling on the past culture/spirituality of African tribal masks.
One of the outstanding comments in the film – thankfully captured on the trailer – is an interview with Nina, indoors,offstage, talking with an interviewer, out of the spotlight:
“I choose to reflect the times and the situations in which I find myself – how can you be an artist and not reflect the times?”
Nina Simone – the person
Back to Nina – she is a complex personality – and one of the strengths of this movie is that her daughter, Lisa, is involved in the project – who had a ringside seat and tells of the tough times but also, above all, plays tribute to her mother’s genius. What I see of Lisa, I like. Here she is, together with the film-maker Liz Garbarus, being interviewed by Whoopi Goldberg (the woman whom Nina wanted to play her in any film of her life).
Reasons to watch the film
“What happened to Miss Simone” is a terrific film. Watch it if you can. It was nominated for an Academy award (Oscar) for Best Documentary, Feature. It picked up the Emmy for Outstanding Documentary – and was also nominated for nonfiction Directing, Cinematography and Sound Mixing. Which is brilliant considering that the majority of the film are old recordings of Nina Simone where you are stuck with the quality of the original, with very little fresh filming a documentary maker can make.
When Lisa Simone saw the first cut of the documentary, she responded by doing a little dance of joy, feeling that it truly showed her mother and thanking the Director. Really – that’s enough accolades all around to merit watching this film. Do not miss it.
Like all great movies, I am left wanting to know more about Nina, her daughter’s own work, the other movies made by the Director – and definitely to watch other films nominated in the same categories. Ironically, in the Oscars, the film lost out to a documentary of a more recent soul singer legend, Amy (about Amy Winehouse).
What can creatives take away from the film and the life story of Nina Simone? Firstly, to stretch yourself as an artist means you will become an outsider – Nina learn classical music which made her strange in the contemporary Black culture but yet she also didn’t fit into the White culture because of her skin colour.
Secondly – pursue your art anyhow – life will throw you brickbats, ridicule and heckling from the front row – but you can still make timeless art, when it’s authentic.
Thirdly – look at what you’re making – does it engage with your times? The bad times as well as the good times?