Movie review: Tracking the troubled genius in ‘Amazing Nina Simone’
The documentary “The Amazing Nina Simone” leaves no doubt that Nina Simone was indeed amazing, but it ignores an opportunity to go beneath the surface and explore the intersection of genius and madness that troubled Simone in her later years.
Still, the film, written and directed by Jeff L. Lieberman, works as a straight biographical portrait, and what a subject it has to work with. Simone’s personal ferocity, her stunning talent and unique approach to modern music all come burning through — how could they not? — and the sheer wonder of her rise to fame and politicization makes hers a captivating story.
Nina Simone was born Eunice Waymon in 1933, the sixth child of a preacher mother and musical father whose entire family fit into a small, run-down wooden house in Tyron, North Carolina. By the age of 3, Eunice was playing piano and soon began taking classical piano lessons from a local teacher.
Her character became evident at her first formal recital at the age of 12. When white people in attendance forced her black parents to abandon their front-row seats and move to the back of the hall, Eunice declared she wouldn’t perform unless her parents were brought back to the front. Her parents were re-seated, and Simone’s lifelong habit of demanding respect from her audience was established.
Eunice won a summer scholarship to study classical music at Julliard in New York City after high school, but was later turned down for a full scholarship at a prestigious school in Philadelphia, likely due to being black and a woman. Finding herself unemployed, she auditioned for a job at a bar in Atlantic City, but was told she’d have to also sing to get the gig. So she started singing.
She also took on the stage name Nina Simone, afraid that her religious mother would be aghast to find Eunice performing in a bar.
From there, Simone took off, mixing elements of classical, jazz, folk, blues and anything else she heard into a completely unique sound. She was simply too original to become a true pop star, but throughout the ’60s, she built a following and reputation, and when she became active in the civil rights movement, her fierce nature rose up in songs and performances that were riveting.
Unfortunately, “The Amazing Nina Simone” can only glance at those moments — no songs are performed in full, and the movie leaves a craving for more, more. It’s a point of frustration.
Then, as Simone ages, she becomes undeniably mentally ill, hearing sounds on stage, lashing out at audiences. The film softens this long period a bit, preferring the upbeat, but this is one of the more interesting things about Simone’s admittedly fascinating life. Was she driven to madness or driven by madness? There’s no easy answer, of course, but it’s a question worth more exploration.
Tom Long is the former Detroit Newsfilm critic.
‘The Amazing Nina Simone’
Running time: 110 minutes
At the Detroit Film Theatre