January 3, 2016 -- This documentary follows the sometimes turbulent life of popular musician, singer and activist Nina Simone (born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in 1933). Interviews with friends and family are combined with archival recordings, performances and interviews with Nina, who died in 2003.
Nina showed great promise as a musician at an early age and got some help studying classical music with the goal of being the first black to be a concert pianist. It was a lofty goal that was denied her, but she did finally get to perform at Carnegie Hall. She studied at Julliard School of Music, but was denied a scholarship to Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, probably because of her race.
Nina started playing piano in nightclubs in Atlantic City to make ends meet. The nightclub management insisted that Nina also sing, so she started singing while playing. That turned out to be a good career move. She changed her stage name to Nina Simone because she did not want her parents (her father was a minister) to know she was a nightclub entertainer.
In 1957, guitarist Al Schackman started accompanying her in the band, and the two developed an easy rapport. Schackman had perfect pitch and could follow Nina's frequent chord changes. The two played together for years. In 1958, Simone had a hit with the single “I Loves You Porgy” from her “Little Girl Blue” album, one of 40 she would go on to record in a variety of musical styles. In the film, there is a video of Nina playing “I Loves You Porgy” at the Playboy Mansion. Another shows some of her famous performance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1960.
Al Schackman says in the movie, that he could tell there was something bothering Nina, even in these early years. She had extreme mood swings, and would sometimes get abusive with people. She got upset when people in the audience were talking or not paying attention. In one video in the documentary, Nina stops playing and repeatedly tells a woman in the audience to sit down. Schackman said Nina would refuse to perform if people in the audience did not behave the way she thought they should.
Nina married a police detective, Andrew Stroud, in 1961. Stroud quit his job to become Nina's manager. According to interviews in the film, Stroud was a good manager, but an abusive husband. He pushed Nina to become a major pop recording star, but Nina, suffering from undiagnosed bipolar disorder (manic-depressive) was ill-equipped for the high pressure life and frequent road appearances of a pop star.
According to the documentary Nina seems to have found her true calling in the Civil Rights Movement, which began with the September, 1963 terrorist bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, by white supremacists. The bombing resulted in the murder of four African-American girls in the 16th Street Baptist Church. Nina got so mad, she wrote the song “Mississippi Goddam” in response to the church bombing and the assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers, in Jackson, Mississippi, also in 1963.
Nina spoke and performed at a number of civil rights events, including the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965. She was friends with both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. She was a firebrand, advocating violent revolution on stage and in speeches. It cost her money in terms of her career. Some of her songs became popular in the civil rights movement and beyond, such as, “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.”
Nina's daughter, Lisa, interviewed in the documentary, speaks about growing up with her friends in the family of Malcolm X. Malcolm X's daughters, Attallah Shabazz (credited as Ambassador Shabazz) and Ilyasah Shabazz both talk about growing up in a household of different accents and cultures.
The documentary traces Nina and Lisa's life through the many turbulent years that followed, including a number of years living in Liberia, Africa and in Europe. Nina continued to perform, not because she wanted to, but because she needed the money, much as she had done in the 1950s. She ended up alone and near broke in Paris, when friends helped get her back on her feet. She finally got medication for her bipolar disorder.
What comes through in all this is Nina's amazing talent and her blazing spirit. She accomplished so much in her life, but it makes me wonder what more she could have done, how much happier she might have been, if her condition could have been treated earlier and more effectively. It also makes me wonder what she might have achieved if she had been able to follow the career path she originally chose, that of a concert pianist. This film rates a B.
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