Perhaps the most famous person you’ve never heard of…
by Martin Hafer
I’ve got to be up front about this, I don’t remember hearing anything about Nina Simone before I watched this film. While she was a very famous jazz performer, her meteoric career all but fizzled by the time I was a very young child. I’m not a particular fan of modern jazz, either, so in some ways, I am not the ideal audience for this wonderful new documentary from Liz Garbus. But because of my work in the mental health field, the film really resonated with me.
Nina was a child prodigy at the piano. However, this was back in the 1930s and she was a tiny black girl growing up in the South. Yet despite the racially charged climate, she had a spark of genius–such that despite the times, she was helped by people to help realize her dream of being a musician. Instead of the concert classical pianist she was trained to be, she sort of accidentally fell into the jazz industry and was soon known at least as much as her singing as her genius at the piano. This led to a lot of financial success in the 1950s and into the 60s and life was looking grand for this lady.
So how, then, at the height of her fame did Simone’s career start to slip? And why did she walk away from this life? This confusing journey about mental illness, to me, is the most interesting part of this documentary. While it’s not perfect (a lot of her more bizarre behaviors later in life are omitted from the story as well as her second marriage), the film is rare in quality and is extremely well made. Considering that Simone died from cancer over a decade ago, this should have been a tough film to make. Yet, fortunately, they had recordings and diaries of Simone speaking her mind and explaining her strange journey through life. Garbus also was fortunate to have Simone’s daughter’s cooperation as well as her first husband and friends, giving you amazing access into Simone’s world as well as into the mental illness that impacted but never destroyed her career. That sort of access alone is more than enough reason to see this documentary.
By the way, if you like this film, also trying watching another great Garbus documentary, Bobby Fischer Against the World. The character in this film is, in many ways, much like Simone — with lots of brilliance as well as lots of personal demons.