If it hadn’t been beaten into theaters by Liz Garbus‘ Sundance-boosted What Happened, Miss Simone?, one would have little trouble selling The Amazing Nina Simone, an obvious labor of love by writer-director-everything-else Jeff L. Lieberman. As structurally simple as a high school book report, the doc is frequently dry but comes packed with performance footage, scores of interviews and enough biographical detail to let us form our own ideas about the trickier scenes it elides in its attempt to fit an entire complicated life into under two hours. Probably just different enough from its predecessor to justify a continued video afterlife, the picture’s theatrical release will rely on the patronage of fans who meant to see the first in theaters but didn’t make it out in time.
Unlike Garbus‘ film, this one was made without the participation of Simone’s daughter, Lisa. It barely discusses their relationship, in fact, leaving us unaware of Lisa’s claims that she was abused. While it offers a good deal more detail of the singer’s marriage to Andrew Stroud — and how could it not, given the extent to which he steered her professional life? — it doesn’t include interviews with him, either.
But other valuable interviews abound — several of Simone’s brothers appear, including her sometime bandmate Sam Waymon. Childhood friends and even a school principal help flesh out the picture of Eunice Waymon, the girl in Tryon, North Carolina, whose affinity for the piano was recognized early on and nurtured enthusiastically.
Lieberman follows his subject dutifully from the South to Juilliard; to her first professional disappointment (she was rejected by Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute, which the film disputes was, as she always believed, because of her race); to the Atlantic City nightclub whose owner insisted the instrumentalist had to sing if she wanted the gig; to sudden stardom as the newly christened Nina Simone.
Lieberman digs up a bootleg from that A.C. engagement, one of the very rare recordings in this film in which Simone does not sound like a fully formed talent (as she does even in tapes of her as a child singing a Gospel tune). But she found her footing almost immediately, cutting George Gershwin‘s “I Loves You, Porgy” after Billie Holiday did and, as Philly DJ Sid Mark recalls, setting the airwaves on fire with it.
The film follows Simone to prestigious bookings (New York’s Town Hall, The Ed Sullivan Show) and tallies her many mid-60s LPs, along the way making just enough note of her personal life to hint at the troubles to come. We see current events triggering her innate sense of racial justice (as a girl, she had refused to perform a recital until her parents were returned to their front-row seats); friends like professor/writer Nikki Giovanni popping up to shed light on her politicization; and friendships with figures like Malcolm X and Lorraine Hansberry.
Lieberman is solid on chronology and facts, and with the help of interviewees like Simone’s longtime guitarist Al Schackman, he gets plenty of behind-the-scenes color. But he stops short of claiming to understand fully the mental-health issues that led to her long breaks from performing later in life, her erratic behavior with audiences (we see some dramatic clips of her lecturing fans) and her dicier domestic arrangements. He ends, expectedly, on an upbeat note, citing the performer’s continued influence and the versatility of her astounding body of work.
Production company: Re-Emerging Films
Director-Screenwriter-Producer-Director of photography-Editor: Jeff L. Lieberman
Music: Tenny Whyte
No rating, 104 minutes