'Nina': Film Review

Too small a film for such a towering subject.

Zoe Saldana stars as "High Priestess of Soul" Nina Simone in an already controversial new biopic.

Heading into release with one strike against it — some have already slammed the film over lighter-skinned Zoe Saldana playing darker-toned Nina Simone — Nina takes another strike by focusing on a period of the great singer's life, her late years in France, that's far less dramatic than numerous earlier stages. The film also hits a couple of fouls with its exceedingly expository dramatic approach and tendency to hip-hop through her career without going deep. It's not the biographical film this stupendous, if mightily troubled, musical and political figure deserved, especially coming in the immediate wake of Liz Garbus' riveting documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? last year. Ironically, however, the latter film might help the new one find a bit more of an audience than it would have otherwise, by virtue of having reawakened public awareness of this convulsively talented, if sometimes self-destructive, artist. Still, theatrical returns will be meager for the sporadically intense drama, which was shot in 2012, with interested parties more likely to check it out in home-access venues.

Debuting feature writer-director Cynthia Mort has spent nearly her entire career until now in television, variously as a writer, director and/or producer on the likes of Roseanne, Will & Grace and Tell Me You Love Me, while also writing Neil Jordan's feature The Brave One. The opening minutes seem like subject chapter headings, with abrupt jumps from a girlhood formal piano recital in 1946 North Carolina, where young Nina insists that her parents be allowed so sit up front with whites rather than in the back row (and where a giant U.S. flag displays the wrong number of stars for the period), to her 1965 Village Gate jazz debut, a 1988 French radio interview, a violent demand in 1995 Los Angeles for back royalties she signed away years earlier and, finally, to Nice, where she has an awfully nice house for an alleged pauper.

Her would-be impoverishment notwithstanding, the “High Priestess of Soul” can't live without an entourage, which, when she's in her 60s, consists of just one man, Clifton Henderson (David Oyelowo), a straight-laced, humorless male nurse from Chicago whom she pays enough to become her personal assistant in Europe. Unsuccessfully, at first, trying to get her to eat while keeping her off the champagne she craves, Clifton soon discovers that there's one particular task that comes with the job that he's unwilling to perform, to his boss' initial fury, which forces the man's rigorously closeted sexual orientation into the open.

Privately appalled by Nina's constant wayward behavior (diagnosed with bipolar disorder, she was also a manic-depressive, paranoid and sporadically violent alcoholic), Clifton nudges her to line up a new gig, which she eventually does, in Paris, with startling results. But even if the late-in-life traumas, which also include breast cancer, possess undeniable drama, they can't really compare with the more singular experiences of her life decades earlier, especially in the 1960s, events that are only glancingly dramatized, if at all.

The decision to focus on Nina's last years also sticks the viewer for too long with the stubbornly bland Clifton, no doubt one of the less engaging personalities to play an important role in the diva's life; from a dramatic point of view, the man remains sullen, tightly wound and low on ingratiating qualities. Forced to keep his character bottled up, Oyelowo must cede the film almost entirely to Saldana, who is the whole show here anyway.

Her natural great beauty tamped down and her facial features, along with her complexion, altered to create an enhanced approximation of the singer's actual appearance, Saldana comes across powerfully in the many scenes that give their undivided attention to Nina's rage, volatility, unpredictable behavior, irrational decisions and, when the chemicals and the stars align properly, her artistic genius. The latter is seen in bits and pieces of her earlier career, which could have provided many ripe opportunities for more extensive dramatization than are taken advantage of here: Her early transition from classical piano playing (Bach remained a touchstone for her) to jazz and nightclub singing, her rise as a popular recording artist in the late '50s and '60s, her troubled first two marriages and, most convulsively, her politicization during the civil rights movement, which brought forth some startling new material, militant social attitudes, erratic personal behavior and, by the early '70s, a repudiation of the U.S. in favor of a vagabond self-imposed exile in the Caribbean, Africa and, ultimately, Europe.

As for the music itself, Saldana does her own singing and is really good at it. The results don't sound particularly like Nina Simone — the actress doesn't have the deeper, thicker and nuanced drama of her subject's exceptional voice — but on its own terms are highly listenable, even compelling at times.

There's clearly far too much to Nina Simone's deeply complicated life to be adequately communicated in a 90-minute dramatization, so what one comes away with here, other than frustration, are a few little moments in which Saldana is able to get across some of the raging impulses, inspirations, manipulations, frustrations and piercing creative expressions that made up part of the woman's personality. Trying to create a satisfying portrait of a volcanic personality whose life and career were so complex and overflowing with personal, artistic and political import was probably a fool's errand. A certain integrity and seriousness of intent gleams through, but Nina is just too big a subject, and talent, to be compressed into such a small package.

Opens: April 22 (RLJ Entertainment)

Production: Ealing Studios, Fragile Films, Londinium Films)

Cast: Zoe Saldana, David Oyelowo, Ronald Guttman, Kevin Mambo, Keith David, Ella Joyce, Ken Davitian, Chuma Gault, Ella Thomas, Mike Epps

Director: Cynthia Mort

Screenwriter: Cynthia Mort

Producers, Stuart Parr, Cynthia Mort, Barnaby Thompson, Ben Latham-Jones

Executive producers: Paul Rosenberg, Gene Kirkwood, Lauren Lloyd, Zoe Saldana, David Oyelowo, Pierre LaGrange, Aigerim Jakisheva, Allison Sarofim, James Spring, Mark Burton

Director of photography: Mihai Malaimare Jr.

Production designer: Missy Stewart

Costume designer: Magali Guidasci

Performance dresses and additional costumes: Roubi L'Roubi

Editors: Mark Helfrich, Susan Littenberg, Josh Rifkin

Music: Ruy Folguera

Casting: Heidi Levitt

90 minutes