What Happened, Miss Simone? (USA, 2015)

what_happened_miss_simoneDirected by: Liz Garbus. I avoided this one for a good while, even though I love Nina, because I guess I had biopic burnout or something. Maybe the impact of Amy was still too profound, that story too tragic, I couldn’t face another sad story, which I suspected this to be. Right now, I’d say this isn’t as tragic as Amy per se, in the sense that Amy’s story really was a confluence of unfortunate people and circumstances around her. Nina was that too, but with the larger, faceless, more abstract hand-of-destiny vibe that mental illness can indicate. She had negative people in her life for sure, but the mental illness is an illness, and it’s a tragedy of a whole other caliber. Nina’s story was as interesting as any rock star’s story, and a lot more varied than all of those rock star tragedies—let’s face it, 99% of rock star biographies are just variations on what you get by reading about the Beatles. In this case, by coming up as a black woman dedicated to being a classical pianist, Nina’s story already gives me something totally new. Frankly, the biggest contribution this film makes, perhaps like any documentary about a genuinely dazzling personality, is to get out of the way and show the footage. That footage of Nina performing—I had never seen any live footage of her performances—is some of the most striking, elusive, quasi-religious music performance I’ve ever seen. The film makes its case best when it just shows us that Nina Simone approached almost hyperbolic levels of genius, that she inhabited a level of artistry that most of our famous artists really, genuinely never achieved, however good they were. The Beatles were just a bunch of guys singing nice songs. Most rock performers never lived on a stage like this, nor jazz performers or any other performers for that matter. And to me, her story was given tremendous context by having the film always remind us with these live clips, just how fucking good she was. This is the back bone of the story, the element that gives the rest of it meaning. This may not be as heartbreaking as Amy, but that ain’t saying much—this is still pretty damn sad.

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One response to “What Happened, Miss Simone? (USA, 2015)

  1. Pingback: Citizenfour (USA/Germany, 2014) | Offhand Reviews·

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