WHO GETS TO DE­FINE AN ARTIST?

Com­pet­ing films, one a doc­u­men­tary, the other a con­tested biopic, will try to de­ci­pher the com­pli­cated singer

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - BY RE­BECCA KEE­GAN

Kanye West sam­pled her, Chanel made her into a jin­gle and Pres­i­dent Obama called her song “Sin­ner­man” one of his 10 fa­vorites. But for a woman whose mu­sic is so widely ad­mired, Nina Si­mone has long been lit­tle un­der­stood. Even many fans of the jazz artist and civil rights rad­i­cal don’t know what fu­eled the pas­sion and anger that be­came her trade­mark, be­fore ul­ti­mately lead­ing her to aban­don public life in her prime.

Si­mone’s only child, Lisa Si­mone Kelly, hopes some of that mys­tery will lift with the re­lease of the doc­u­men­tary “What Hap­pened, Miss Si­mone?” which opens theatrically Fri­day in Los An­ge­les and will be avail­able on Net­flix as well.

“She has a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing dif­fi­cult, loud and vi­o­lent, but why?” Si­mone Kelly said of her mother by phone from her home in France. “We all have a story. My mother suf­fered. We can go all the way back to when she was a child and peo­ple told her her nose was too big, her skin was too dark, her lips were too wide. It’s very im­por­tant the world ac­knowl­edges my mother was a clas­si­cal mu­si­cian whose dreams were not re­al­ized be­cause of racism.”

Di­rected by Liz Gar­bus and ex­ec­u­tive pro­duced by Si­mone Kelly, “What Hap­pened, Miss Si­mone?” is reach­ing au­di­ences months be­fore a highly con­tested biopic, “Nina,” star­ring Zoe Sal­dana in the ti­tle role, hits the­aters. That film, which came un­der fire for the cast­ing of the fair-skinned Sal­dana as Si­mone and was the sub­ject of a law­suit by its di­rec­tor, Cyn­thia Mort,

is ex­pected to be re­leased in the fall, ac­cord­ing to a spokes­woman for its Bri­tish pro­duc­tion com­pany, Eal­ing Stu­dios.

Si­mone is pen­e­trat­ing the main­stream via other media too: On July 10, Re­vive Mu­sic//RCA Records will re­lease “Nina Re­vis­ited: A Trib­ute to Nina Si­mone,” an al­bum of artists in­clud­ing Lau­ryn Hill and Mary J. Blige cov­er­ing her songs.

It was pre­cisely be­cause Si­mone Kelly was so dis­turbed by the script for “Nina,” which fo­cuses on a re­la­tion­ship with a com­pos­ite char­ac­ter based on Si­mone’s for­mer nurse and man­ager, Clifton Hen­der­son (played by David Oyelowo), that she de­cided to par­tic­i­pate in the doc­u­men­tary.

“Let’s put it this way, I’m very happy that this movie made it across the fin­ish line first,” said Si­mone Kelly, an ac­tress and singer who has per­formed on Broad­way in the ti­tle role of the Dis­ney mu­si­cal “Aida” and re­leased three solo al­bums. Si­mone Kelly’s fa­ther, An­drew Stroud, was a New York po­lice de­tec­tive who later be­came Si­mone’s man­ager. “If a lie comes out in the movies, that goes down in history as that per­son’s jour­ney.”

No em­bel­lish­ing needed

It’s hard to imag­ine that a sto­ry­teller would need to em­bel­lish Si­mone, who pro­jected a shock­ing power as a per­former even as she shoul­dered the bur­dens of ge­nius, racism, sex­ism and, ac­cord­ing to her daugh­ter, men­tal ill­ness.

In 1964, a time when white au­di­ences ex­pected black fe­male pop singers like the Supremes and the Ronettes to per­form love songs and look de­mure, Si­mone was de­liv­er­ing the protest an­them “Mis­sis­sippi God­dam” at Carnegie Hall, telling the crowd, “You’re all gonna die and die like flies.”

“Fus­ing blues and jazz into stan­dards, talk­ing to her au­di­ence, call­ing them out on what­ever she felt they needed to be called out on ... For a black woman to do that at time, that was not done,” Gar­bus said. “They were ex­pected to play and make things nice and not rock the boat.”

Gar­bus, whowas nom­i­nated for an Os­car for her 1998 prison film, “The Farm: An­gola USA,” and has also made movies on Bobby Fis­cher and Mar­i­lyn Monroe, was one of a long list of po­ten­tial di­rec­tors that pro­duc­tion com­pany Rad­i­cal Media gave to Si­mone Kelly in 2013. It was in par­tic­u­lar Gar­bus’ treat­ment of Monroe in the 2012 film “Love, Mar­i­lyn” that caught Si­mone Kelly’s eye for how it gave di­men­sion to another widely mis­un­der­stood woman.

“Liz is fe­male, she’s fear­less, she’s got com­pas­sion,” Si­mone Kelly said. “I thought she­would tell this story the way Mom would want the story told.”

Through ex­ten­sive use of archival per­for­mance footage and in­ter­views with key fig­ures like Stroud and Si­mone’s long­time gui­tarist, Al Schack­man, “What Hap­pened, Miss Si­mone?” cov­ers the singer’s tragic life arc. There is her child­hood as a Bach-lov­ing pi­ano prodigy in North Carolina, her days singing stan­dards in Green­wich Vil­lage bars in the 1950s, her awak­en­ing to the civil rights move­ment in the 1960s, her volatile mar­riage and ex­ile to Liberia and later Europe, and her di­ag­no­sis of bipo­lar dis­or­der.

In ex­cerpts from Si­mone’s di­aries, the film shows the enor­mous toll of life on the road— she wrote of­ten of her fa­tigue and of miss­ing her daugh­ter, whom Mal­colm X’s widow, Betty Shabazz, was rais­ing in Mount Ver­non, N.Y.

Gar­bus and her team un­earthed per­for­mance footage a New York Univer­sity stu­dent had shot in 16mmof Si­mone at the Vil­lage Gate night­club in New York and tracked down au­dio tapes of in­ter­views she gave to the man who helped her write her mem­oirs, Stephen Cleary, whowas liv­ing in Aus­tralia.

“When you lis­tened to her you felt like she had gone through ev­ery­thing you might imag­ine go­ing through,” Gar­bus said. “That’s a heal­ing thing, that you can feel like she’s been there and knows your strug­gle. But the [civil rights] move­ment could make some­one crazy.”

Net­flix re­ceived an Os­car nom­i­na­tion for a pre­vi­ous doc­u­men­tary ac­qui­si­tion, “The Square,” a 2013 film about un­rest in Egypt. “What Hap­pened, Miss Si­mone?” is the first doc­u­men­tary Net­flix has fi­nanced it­self (to­gether with Rad­i­cal Media). “We’re their ‘House of Cards’ for doc­u­men­taries,” Gar­bus said. “Mak­ing your first doc­u­men­tary about a rad­i­cal like Nina is pretty ad­ven­tur­ous.”

The trou­bles of ‘Nina’

The doc­u­men­tary gal­loped along, but the biopic, “Nina,” hit sev­eral rough patches. A cru­cial part of Si­mone’s iden­tity was not just that she was a black woman but that she was a dark-skinned black woman who was pun­ished for that fact.

So when di­rec­tor Cyn­thia Mort cast Sal­dana, mul­tira­cial and of Do­mini­can and Puerto Ri­can parent­age, in the ti­tle role, many took um­brage. In Ebony, Marc Lamont Hill wrote, “There is no greater ev­i­dence of how tragic things are for dark-skinned women in Hol­ly­wood than the fact that they can’t even get hired to play dark-skinned women.”

Mort said by phone that she cast Sal­dana be­cause “she’s com­mit­ted and she’s amaz­ing.” “I un­der­stood that re­ac­tion [to the cast­ing], but ... Nina was much more than that and lived be­yond those def­i­ni­tions,” Mort said.

On the eve of the film’s 2014 Cannes Film Fes­ti­val screen­ing for po­ten­tial ex­hibitors, how­ever, Mort, who wrote the screen­play for the 2007 Jodie Foster thriller “The Brave One,” filed a law­suit against her Bri­tish pro­duc­tion com­pany, Eal­ing Stu­dios, al­leg­ing that it breached her di­rec­tor’s agree­ment and took over cre­ative con­trol of the pro­ject. She has since dropped the case.

“We had very, very, very dif­fer­ent vi­sions of the film,” Mort said. “But itwas time for me to move on. I’m very ex­cited for the doc­u­men­tary be­cause Nina Si­mone was an im­por­tant fig­ure to African Amer­i­cans, to women and to artists.”

A spokes­woman for Eal­ing says the com­pany is ne­go­ti­at­ing with a U.S. dis­trib­u­tor.

Even be­fore ei­ther film’s re­lease, au­di­ences are re­dis­cov­er­ing Si­mone. When John Leg­end ac­cepted the Os­car for orig­i­nal song for the film “Selma” in Fe­bru­ary, he quoted Si­mone, who had sung “Mis­sis­sippi God­dam” for the 40,000marchers from Mont­gomery to Selma, Ala., whose story is told in the film.

Last sum­mer, as Gar­bus was edit­ing, protest and civil dis­tur­bance were un­fold­ing in Fer­gu­son, Mo. “The footage on the TV looked ex­actly like our civil rights footage,” Gar­bus said.

On the June morn­ing of her film’s pre­miere at the Apollo Theater in Har­lem, Gar­bus said she walked into a Star­bucks and heard Si­mone’s voice car­ry­ing over the hiss of the espres­so­ma­chine.

“Why is this hap­pen­ing now?” Gar­bus asked. “Maybe we need her. Maybe Nina’s an an­ti­dote to what’s hap­pened in the mu­sic in­dus­try. We talk about its com­mer­cial­iza­tion and ho­mog­e­niza­tion. She’s an icon peo­ple can call on for a model of hon­est in­volve­ment in the­move­ment as an en­ter­tainer.”

Max Nash As­so­ci­ated Press

JAZZ SINGER Nina Si­mone plays on a Tel Aviv beach on Jan. 2, 1978. She walked away from public life while in her prime.

AlWertheimer Net­flix

NINA SI­MONE

in an un­dated im­age from her per­form­ing years in the Net­flix doc­u­men­tary “What Hap­pened, Miss Si­mone?”

Al Seib Los An­ge­les Times

LIZ GAR­BUS, di­rec­tor of “What Hap­pened, Miss Si­mone?,” has also made movies on Bobby Fis­cher and Mar­i­lyn Monroe.

Veronique Dupont AFP / Getty Im­ages

ZOE SAL­DANA will por­tray Si­mone in the biopic “Nina.”

Amy T. Zielin­ski Redferns via Getty Im­ages

SINGER LISA SI­MONE per­forms in 2014 in Lon­don.

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