Nina Simone doc to screen at Aspen Art Museum
Nina Simone was a musical genius, a civil-rights leader, a radical in a time that needed radicals. For Aspen Art Museum artist-in-residence Mickalene Thomas, she was also a mentor and a muse, immortalized in the artist’s ambitious two gallery multimedia show “Mentors, Muses and Celebrities,” which is on view for two more weeks.
The museum is completing a series of free film screenings today, presented in conjunction with Thomas’s show, with the Oscar-nominated documentary “What Happened, Miss Simone?”
The show examines the public personas and influence of black women — Eartha Kitt, Wanda Sykes, Whoopi Goldberg and Pam Grier among them, along with Simone, represented in audio, on video and on canvas.
It’s a multi-sensory experience, maybe best taken in by sitting in the homey and inviting living room spaces that Thomas has created in the center of each gallery. Sitting stools, plants and a rug invite the viewer to sit and peruse piles of selected books. The books range from feminist theory to African-American history. Since the show opened in March, it’s operated as a lending library, bringing the exhibition’s experience beyond the walls of the museum.
“I invite all of you to be a participant in some way,” Thomas said at the opening. “To read a book and take one. And if you take one, leave one.”
With the related film screenings, the books and the immersive experience show itself, Thomas has invited visitors to participate in a conversation about the show and the issues around black womanhood and artistic influence that it raises.
“It creates an orchestrated experience for you,” curator Courtenay Finn said at the opening, “and the works are in conversation. The title of the show — ‘Mentors, Muses and Celebrities’ — comes to life as you walk through the space with all of these different women who sometimes come to the forefront, move to the back, act as a chorus and really represent the women who have mentored Mickalene or influenced her.”
Released through Netflix last year and nominated for the Best Documentary Academy Award, “What Happened, Miss Simone?” opens with the stanza of the Maya Angelou poem from which it takes its title. From there it sets out to answer the question. While it includes some indelible performances and captures Simone’s singular genius, the core of the film is about her turn away from commercial entertainment toward political songs, her abuse at the hands of her husband/manager, her retreat from America, and her struggle with mental illness. It’s a complex story, told in 100 gripping minutes with a mix of archival footage, interviews and diary entries, put together by director Liz Garbus.
“People thought she became ‘Nina Simone’ when she went on stage, but she was Nina Simone 24 hours a day, and that’s when it became a problem,” her daughter Lisa Simone Kelly says in the film. “When she went home she was still fighting because she was fighting her own demons — filled with anger and rage. And everything fell apart.”
Our first glimpse of Simone is a 1976 performance at the Montreaux Jazz Festival, following her eight-year-long self-imposed exile from the spotlight and performance after she left the U.S. for Liberia. She appears shocked to find herself applauded again and sitting at a piano.
The mostly chronological film then goes back to the beginning for Simone, as a young classical piano prodigy named Eunice Waymon, winning the support of white benefactors in rural, segregated North Carolina. Her talent allowed her to cross the railroad tracks to the white section of town to perform recitals of Bach and Debussy and the canon.
A hint of her later activism came early: When her parents were made to stand in the back of a concert hall for one of her childhood performances, she refused to play until they were permitted to sit among the whites. She prevailed and the concert went on.
Primed for a career as a color barrier breaking concert pianist, Simone was rejected from admission to the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia due to her race in 1952. She instead ended up in Atlantic City, New Jersey, playing late night gigs in bars. She’d never sung before, but a bar owner, she recalls in the film, instructed her to sing if she wanted to get paid.
“It was a very crummy bar,” Simone says, “and I would play whatever I could think of — Bach, spirituals, blues.”
She changed her name to Nina Simone to keep her mother, a preacher, from hearing that she was playing “the devil’s music in bars.”
A booking at the Newport Jazz Festival began to make her a star, followed by her first record and her hit rendition of “I Loves You, Porgy.” The film shows her being lauded by Hugh Hefner on his television show.
Simone offers bracing descriptions of how her husband/manager Andy Stroud abused her, which coincided with horrific bouts of depression. The demands of the music business and the pressures of being a star in the early 1960s weighed heavily on her. Still a fastidious classical pianist at heart, she would end concerts if the audience was talking.
She is inspired to join the civil-rights movement after the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church and works alongside movement leaders like Malcolm X (her neighbor in Mount Vernon, New York), Stokely Carmichael and Martin Luther King. She grows close with artists like Dick Gregory, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes and Lorraine Hansberry, who inspired Simone’s iconic “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” As she begins infusing the struggle for civil rights into her music — beginning with “Mississippi Goddam” in 1964 — her commercial success begins to wane. She plays the Selma to Montgomery march in 1965 and begins advocating violent revolution (she once confronted King and declared, “I am not nonviolent”). Critic Stanely Crouch dubs her “the patron saint of the rebellion.” This section of the film elevates it beyond a straightforward portrait of the artist and thrusts it viscerally into our current #blacklivesmatter moment, in the wake of the Charleston church shooting, of Ferguson, Missouri, and of Baltimore and debates about Confederate monuments.
“We will shape and mold this country or it will not be molded and shaped at all,” Simone says in a mid-60s interview. “How can you be an artist and not want to reflect the times?”
As the tumult of 1968 takes hold, Simone grows depressed and suicidal, eventually having a nervous breakdown while on tour with Bill Cosby. Soon after writing and performing her tribute to King, “Why (The King of Love is Dead),” she stops playing music for the first time since age 4. She settles in Liberia, then in Europe, eventually finding herself performing in bars to audiences who don’t believe she is Nina Simone.
After being treated for manic depression, she reluctantly begins the comeback that extended through her death in 2003. The film leaves it up to the viewer to decide whether Simone was served well by the heavy medication that allowed her to begin performing again and claim her rightful place as a towering musical genius, but it leaves no doubt about that genius.
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