Nina Simone has always made me feel hopeful and sometimes melancholy. There is an emotional resonance in her voice that appears to pull up from the earth itself. I admit to knowing basically nothing about her personal experiences. My favorite songs coming from the 1960 album “Forbidden Fruit” after hearing “Rags and Old Iron” which I confess to playing about 10 times before moving on to the rest of the record. It is one of those records that each song has you enthralled and shaking your head in awe.
What Happened, Miss Simone? — (2015, Dir: Liz Garbus) — When this documentary became available on Netflix …I added it to my list and every time I scrolled past it ..I just felt that I wasn’t awake enough , or in the right mood, or emotionally prepared. So it sat there. Until last night. Wanting to shut off the world for a while it felt like the right time. I closed the door, turned off the phone, dimmed the lights and gave it my full attention. Respectful. That is my first word; it shows her life , her work and her essence with respect. Its not overly emotional nor judgmental yet remains touching and focused. Ms. Simone’s daughter offers incredibly mature and thoughtful insights to her parents and the experience from her viewpoint and theirs with clarity. Use of Ms. Simone’s own diaries gives an additional insight to the complexities of her thoughts and experiences but also feels edited and not overly intrusive. One could compare her experience to that of Judy Garland attempting to balance work, creative energy, womanhood and motherhood through the murky depths of mental illness. In an era of intense turmoil being both black AND a woman offers Ms. Simone a set of conflicts both personal and political that could not be easily settled. Then we add to the mixture the loss of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King both as American heroes and deeper to her as a personal loss. A loss of hope with these deaths seem to close off whatever music and fame had opened in her heart and mind. Thankfully that is not the end of her story and I leave it to you, actually implore you to discover Nina in a new way by watching the documentary.
Janis Joplin, for me has always represented the era of feminism. I remember seeing her on Dick Cavett numerous times and I must have been only 9 or 10 (yes, I was a tv addict from a very young age). My impression was of a nervous girl, very down to earth and sincere. She dressed trashy cool, had a swagger and a strength in her voice that gave a bigger impression of confidence than I think she actually possessed. Songs like “A Little Piece of my Heart” and “Try” came from the heart of a lot of women trying on the 1970’s for size.
Janis: Little Girl Blue (2015, Dir: Amy J. Berg) — A 1960s icon, Janis’s stories have been told and retold. I approached the film as if there wasn’t much we as fans didn’t already know about her life, fame or background. While the documentary does a terrific job of recounting the biography it doesn’t get much deeper than your basic bio tale. Wonderful inclusion on all levels of the music, a joy to watch and very well put together. No surprises. Its too bad that Dick Cavett plays coy and there wasn’t better use of her family- which is not the fault of the filmmaker — they all may have been resistant to opening up. There is so much available of Janis on film its a terrific tribute piece. Hits all the right spots …but I have to again note that it doesn’t appear to go any deeper. A little reflection of how she was seen by music notables of the time and the era (Civil rights, feminism, the changing world of music genres, the co-opting of black music by white performers) would have pushed this work past the basic and into interesting.