Cinema Music

The Amazing Nina Simone (dir. Jeff L. Lieberman)

Courtesy of AmazingNina.com
Courtesy of AmazingNina.com
“She was left out of Civil Rights history…Erased by jazz critics…And forgotten by most Americans because no one knew how to recognize her greatness.”

I hope this press copy isn’t true. And I hope that to any extent that it’s true, I can do my modest bit to correct it.

“You like Nina Simone because she’s deranged?”

That was a longtime jazz DJ at what was still KCMU-FM, challenging me over The Best Of Nina Simone, debated circa 1994.

And the DJ, while cranky, had a right to ask. I loved Nina Simone because I heard her take on “Here Comes The Sun” in 1993’s Point Of No Return and heard her dripping the notes into the mic. Elegantly dripping. Later I heard the fadeout, her unseen smile as she relaxes into “You can come all night, now/You can come all night…” Calmly and even wistfully letting the tension snap back. The long wait is over.

I did not know about the derangement. I learned.

Jeff L. Lieberman’s documentary The Amazing Nina Simone, playing now at Sundance Cinemas, duels for attention with What Happened, Miss Simone?, directed by Liz Garbus. I haven’t seen the Garbus film; it benefits from the participation and approval of the singer’s daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly. But Amazing focuses on other family, old friends, old collaborators, and other family members, including Simone’s brother Sam Waymon, who played guitar behind her for about a decade.

She began life as Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina in 1933. Mom was a minister when she wasn’t cleaning a house. Eunice, a piano prodigy, played in church, but burned through classical repertoire at private lessons.

Why the prestigious Curtis Institute rejected her, after her audition, remains a mystery. She was black. She was female. Some folks in the film believe the latter struck against her more than the former. Lieberman found the documents noting her rejection, but the reasons seem to be lost.

And that rejection rendered history.

She wanted to continue her classical studies, scraped to work in Atlantic City, but the club owner wanted her to sing. She opened her mouth and “I Loves You Porgy” came out. She became “Nina Simone” because her mother would never approve her performing secular music in a club.

She never did get a college degree in music or anything else—although she prized her two honorary doctorates. “Dr. Nina Simone”—she demanded that full appellation.

She wrote “Mississippi Goddamn” not exclusively about Mississippi but because black people, some of them children, got shot and blown up for demanding what was rightfully theirs. She updated the song; a live set, legality dubious, circa 1985, finds her invoking Jesse Jackson, and possibly—her ranting rises to slurring—even Michael Jackson.

Lieberman wisely avoids cheesy documentary animation, but he keenly assembled montages and collages of her life with her times. Her smile, sometimes all the way up to her eyes, appears over handwritten letters from which the word “fucking” leaps out. She sued her record company; a column next to this news, reports the arrest of an interracial couple in New Orleans.

I did not know that she had both male and female lovers. My friend beside me at the movie said a lot of people with mental illness tend toward bisexual behavior as a function of not knowing who they are. They experiment to try and solve themselves. I haven’t seen any figures on this and I can’t endorse that without seeing some figures. But it is possible in Simone’s case. She felt hot tongs pinching her from without, and pressing her mission from within. So many people—some even on her side—to tell her who she should be.

Derangement? Let’s be kinder and call it bipolar disorder. Sometimes she froze up. Sometimes she heard noises others couldn’t. She knew how to stop cold, leaving the audience only nervous laughter for an escape. But she wouldn’t let them escape, not entirely, until she wanted them to escape.

She still works as topical application–applying Simone to today’s news, not because her work rationally responds to it, but for the splatter of passion beats back chicanery, greed, hypocrisy.

At least, I believe that. And I hope you will too.

I’ll only add that Sam Waymon comes off dignified and articulate, and sad. We’ve lost an agitator, a crusader, and a constantly-challenging, but constantly-rewarding, artist. Sam Waymon lost a friend, a collaborator, and a sister. Personal and political burned the same hole in his soul. He carries on. It’s rewarding. But it isn’t that greatness.