Take a Drink: when Nina Simone rants some crazy talk
Take a Drink: for every musical performance
Do a Shot: for every meltdown
By: Oberst Von Berauscht (Three Beers) –
Nina Simone was a Jazz musician who aspired to be a classical pianist, propped up by pop successes, but taken down by bipolar disorder. While her talents were considerable, her unstable nature made her impossible to control. First on the top of the charts, next a major player in the Civil Rights movement, and then destroyed by her own violent and depressive episodes. This documentary by filmmaker Liz Garbus tells the story of a meteoric personality with a tell-all attitude that never lets up. Simone was a powerful personality, first and foremost.
This film’s chief strength is the access the filmmakers had to hours of raw footage of Nina on and off the stage. Nina was a person who didn’t mince words, an embattled persona who suffered for her work, perhaps too much. The footage on display here is nothing less than stunning. Even her years sequestered in semi-retirement in Liberia, Switzerland, and Paris provide footage that is often heartbreaking in its honesty.
Credit also should be given for the filmmakers for focusing on the people who knew Nina best, rather than the parade of celebrities these sort of films usually feature. Because the focus of the movie tends towards her personal life, it would be disingenuous to discuss her career at the expense of Nina as a person. Most unique to this film is the way it tells of her work with the Civil Rights movement, first as part of the many peaceful followers of Dr. King, and then as her personal life became increasingly embattled, beginning to seek to define herself with the militant side of the struggle. This double-edge sword that she held throughout her life is expressed clearly and beautifully by the numerous subjects who are interviewed for the film.
I would have liked to see more footage of Nina being interviewed. Because while the fly on the wall material is useful in telling her story, it denies the audience an opportunity for closure. And considering some of the abusive elements of her life, which was both dealt to her by her husband, and by her to her children, it would have been useful to know more about how she handled herself while confronted at her most vulnerable. Certainly, since she passed away in 2003, the filmmakers may have simply not had the interview footage available, but since several brief excerpts of her giving interviews are used, it seems like more footage could be out there.
The film races to a finish after the 1980s, not dealing with her later life nearly as much. Certainly, she began receiving treatments for her Bipolar Disorder, and that evened her out considerably, but by ignoring what is effectively the last decade of her life, we’re missing some important information about what she did with herself. Did she continue to struggle? Did the treatments make her live a quieter, more meaningful life? Was she satisfied with her own legacy? These questions are never answered.
A moving tribute to one of popular music’s most embattled personalities and her struggles to define herself, and live with herself.