This Oscar-nominated Netflix original charts the volatile life and fluctuating fortunes of jazz legend Nina Simone, drawing on interviews with family and friends, candid diary entries and letters, as well as some remarkable live performances.
Director Liz Garbus seems to specialise in gifted but troubled souls, having made Bobby Fischer against the World and Love, Marilyn, and here she’s blessed with another fascinating if self-destructive subject.
Garbus charts how Simone’s early dreams of becoming a successful classical pianist were thwarted by the racism of her times and forced the determined preacher’s daughter to take another musical path. Her star rose as a jazz performer in the late 1950s and early 60s, just as the civil rights movement began to gain momentum, and that became the driving force in Simone’s work, with her censor-baiting Mississippi Goddam delivered as a riposte to the violence unfolding in the South.
But her increasingly radical stance began to impact upon her career, while the demands of her touring schedule and the bullying of husband/manager Andrew Stroud began to take their toll on the singer’s mental and physical health. Daughter Lisa Simone Kelly remembers a woman filled with anger and rage – on stage and off – but it’s impossible not to admire Simone’s fearlessness or feel sympathy for those who suffered because of it.
Nina Simone on racism in the United States and her regrets that she was not the first Black classical pianist pic.twitter.com/Qe0oRVsk4H
The events that led to Simone playing in a Paris bar to a roomful of people in the late 70s is one of the sadder chapters of her story, but there is light in the darkness, making this a wholly satisfying portrait of a formidable talent. Review by Jamie Healy
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