The Amazing Nina Simone at The Ultimate Picture Palace: Review
As a figure constantly erased from both major music conversations and Civil Rights history, Nina Simone tapped into many styles and genres, often leading to her being mislabelled, most notably as ‘The High Priestess of Soul’, a title which she despised. Although, 20 years after her death, her music is a revered icon of Black Freedom, she did not escape backlash and controversy during her career due to her outspoken beliefs, but also due to her mental health.
Around 2015, there was a resurgence in media concerning Simone, one of which was an unauthorised film released in 2016, Nina, that received heavily negative criticism due to the casting of Zoë Saldaña. The first documentary was What Happened, Miss Simone?, directed by Liz Garbus and considered a realistic counterpart against Nina, in cooperation with Simone’s estate and daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly. The second was The Amazing Nina Simone, an independent film by Jeff L. Lieberman, who previously consulted with Simone Kelly and Simone’s siblings. After 8 years from its debut, marking both Simone’s 90th birthday and 20 years since her death, The Amazing Nina Simone was viewed at The Ultimate Picture Palace in Cowley, part of Music at Oxford’s international concert series.
The Ultimate Picture Palace is one of Oxford’s truest gems, being the city’s only independent cinema. It first opened in 1911, but subsequently closed 5 years later due to the war. The building is grade II listed, featuring ‘an eclectic mix of independent, mainstream, international, and classic films’ (UPP website) and keeps a classic, indie atmosphere, with a cute bar, small screen and hall seating.
The documentary was introduced by Phil Croydon, one of Music at Oxford’s artistic advisors, who highlighted the background of The Amazing Nina Simone, for example on how Lieberman initially consulted Lisa Simone Kelly, but decided to change narrative routes, discussing more about Simone’s childhood and upbringing with her brothers and childhood friends. Croydon also outlined Simone’s story and her impact both on music and the Civil Rights movement, heralding The Amazing Nina Simone as the most complete narrative of Simone’s life, displaying over 50 interviews of people in and around her life, as well as factual evidence from her history.
The documentary began by introducing Eunice Kathleen Waymon, who later adopted the stage name Nina Simone, and was the sixth of eight children born to African American Methodist parents in 1933, North Carolina. Her musical talent was first observed at four-years-old, when Eunice began playing the hymn ‘God Be With You, Till We Meet Again’ on the family’s piano. Although in current years we associate Nina Simone with folk, soul and blues music, young Eunice began playing classical piano, with a great affinity for J.S. Bach, due to her piano teacher, Muriel Mazzanovich, an elderly English woman who recognised Waymon’s talent and requested to teach her. Expressing her early stance against segregation, at age 12, Waymon refused to perform at her first solo recital until her family was moved to the front of the hall after being ushered to the back to make space for white guests, this would later be echoed in her active engagement in the Civil Rights movement.
Waymon’s classical piano career progressed further until she began attending Julliard, with sights set on becoming the ‘first major African American concert pianist’. However, one of the artist’s greatest lifetime regrets occurred in 1951, when she was rejected from the Curtis Institute of Music, which she stated was due to racial discrimination, however an interviewee on the CIM committee at the time stated it was possibly more due to misogyny in the 1950s classical field. Ironically, the Institute awarded her an honorary degree in 2003, a couple of days before her death.
Continuing towards her childhood goal, Waymon began taking private piano lessons with one of Curtis’ teachers. To fund these classes, she became a cocktail pianist at a bar in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where the bar owner insisted she should sing as well as play the piano to satisfy customers, soft launching the artist ‘Nina Simone’. Waymon invented the stage name to publicly hide from her mother, who would not approve of her playing ‘the Devil’s music’ (secular music). ‘Nina’ came from the Spanish word for girl, ‘niña’, which her then-boyfriend nicknamed her, and ‘Simone’ was adopted from Simone Signoret, a French actress. From then on, Simone’s voice and style would be praised by many who heard her, combining styles she had grown up with, such as classical music, gospel and jazz standards, which were popular during the 50s.
A major part to The Amazing Nina Simone was that it did not shy away from Simone’s mental health and controversies. Discussed by her brother Sam Waymon, throughout her life, Simone dealt with bipolar, which greatly increased after her musical success. This led to what the media deemed as erratic behaviours and major breaks from the public, heavily affecting her media presence, career and personal life. The documentary touched on times Simone threatened record label executives with a gun after they did not pay her royalties and being mismanaged by her last assistant and manager Clifton Henderson. However, a key figure that was absent during the latter documentary sections was Simone’s daughter Lisa, who did not have any displayed interviews. Questions have been raised as to why Lisa was not included, especially after Lieberman previously consulted her before writing the documentary. This left noticeable gaps in Simone’s later life, however as The Amazing Nina Simone thoroughly discussed Simone’s childhood and relationships with Civil Rights activists and romantic partners, it is understandable why there might not have been sufficient space to explore such topics.
The multi-talented Nina Simone had a public career that was both incredibly praised and revered, but also dismissed due to her outspoken character and prejudices. The Amazing Nina Simone does not overlook these controversial and tough elements, but rather openly expresses them to expose the multi-faceted artist and activist that was Nina Simone. This documentary is a must-watch for anyone interested in both recent music and Civil Rights history, as well as the artist herself.