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Tuesday
May172016

From This Day Forward

If every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, then this timely, personal documentary (2015) proves the happy ones can be pretty unique, as well. How does a family stay together when one person changes their identity profoundly in certain respects, while remaining "still me" in others? It has something to do with forgiveness, and everything to do with love. Sharon Shattuck directed this portrait of the marriage of her parents, Trisha and Marcia. Her father, Trisha, came out as a trans woman when Sharon was going through adolescence, and her kid sister was even younger. (My dad grew a mustache when my sister and I were teens, and we found that traumatic enough.) As her own wedding day approaches, she reflects on her parents' union, and the picture becomes a meditation on the bond of marriage itself: two people becoming one, transcending their physical bodies in some sense.

Understated and respectful in tone, this film probably could not have been made, I imagine, absent the trust inherent in the family relationship. Shattuck's probing of Trisha, seeking to understand her dad's decision to transition into a woman, despite the chance it would tear the family apart, is gentle but occasionally painful. Trisha and Marcia seem like essentially private people, and here they are talking about their most private, intimate decisions, fingering old wounds.

  

When we meet her, Trisha's habit is to adopt signifiers of "masculine" or "feminine" depending on how she feels like expressing herself on a given day. Gender is still in flux for her. She might wear a skirt one day, a cowboy hat the next. Her white hair is cut short. In family photos, though, we see her during Shattuck's teen years, when she presented as a full-on--and really rather striking--woman, with flowing long hair.

Her's dad's quite a character, really, even a bit of a ham for the camera, as Shattuck notes in the film's press package. She's got "joie de vivre." I think of her taking part in a jam session with family and friends, happily sawing away on her fiddle. At other times, she struggles to keep happiness from slipping through her fingers, and finds it as fleeting as any of us do.

Marcia is a vibrant woman with bright eyes and an open-hearted smile. Family photos show hers to have been a life filled with laughter, but not without the heartbreak and pain that visits every life. After Trisha first came out, Marcia decided she had no choice: they would divorce. Then, in some way that seems mysterious even to them, their bond seems to have grown even stronger.  

Together, they show what "together through life" really means. In their hard-won union, we may even feel we glimpse the secret to the making of a long-term, successful marriage. Apparently, laughter helps.

This film serves as a showcase for Trisha's striking "abstract expressionist" paintings, as well. Shattuck fills the screen with her dad's artwork. (Like anyone, Trisha, a landscape architect by trade, would prefer to be known for her work, not reduced to an instance of a type.) I like her paintings very much. Some are disquieting. It's like peering through windows into her unconscious, and she "reads" them for us, illuminatingly. In one, an unhappy clown looks straight at us, and his scared eyes speak volumes about what it feel like to be an imposter in your own skin. To feel trapped in there.

If I say "From This Day Forward" could be screened at a community center or a church, I do not mean that pejoratively. Quite the reverse: it's a way of saying the film is not just preaching to the converted. Nor does it shy away from risking potential audience discomfort or disorientation. By inviting us to get to know her father, Shattuck has made a film not about "transgender issues" in a general sense, but about a specific person and her concrete story. In the way she presents her parents and their relationship to viewers, Shattuck's film adopts her parent's approach: we're just us, take it or leave it. When she interviews neighbors in their small Michigan town, we are pleased when they accept Trisha. "I don't care who a person is, as long as they're good," one says. I've got to hope and believe most Americans would agree with that sentiment.

When it comes to identity and love and acceptance, this thought-provoking film leaves us with much to chew on. You could even put it on the shelf next to "The Crying Game." Without seeking to be flip, there's a way in which Osgood's wonderful final line from "Some Like It Hot"--his response to the big reveal ("I'm a man!")--is profoundly on-point: "Well, nobody's perfect." 

"From this Day Forward" screens at Facets Cinémathèque, May 20-26.

Rating: ***1/2

Key to ratings:

***** (essential viewing)
**** (excellent)
*** (worth a look)
** (forgettable)
* (rubbish!!)

Sunday
May152016

The Family Fang

"The Family Fang" is a droll pleasure, a poignant comedy-drama about a brother and sister raised by radical performance artists, Caleb and Camille (Christopher Walken and Maryann Plunkett). Director Jason Bateman sustains a tone deftly balanced between the serious and the wry, no mean feat. The siblings, Annie and Baxter ("A" and "B"), were essentially props in their parents' art pieces. These were comic provocations that in reality would have had the parents thrown in the clink, the kids seized by DCFS. (It's almost as if the whole act of "having kids" is in quotation marks for them.) As the film opens, we witness one such stunt play out. Little Baxter robs a bank with a toy gun, then shoots "the bank guard" (dad). Stage blood spews as patrons look on, expressions of horror morphing into "Huh?" The blood is syrup, and it tastes good--as a final touch, Baxter runs a finger through a pool of it and enthusiastically pops the coated digit in his mouth. You can almost sense a future downpayment on a boat for a budding therapist somewhere.  

One source of the film's comedy is the twist that Caleb and Camille wanted to raise their kids to reject society's values, not internalize them, as parenting has more traditionally been conceived. Or Caleb did, more than Camille: he's really more the ideologue of the two. If you're going to do art, he declares, you must put everything you've got into it, and it should be risky and subversive. He is not a fan of the work the kids ended up doing as adults. Annie (Nicole Kidman) became a movie star of mainstream Hollywood fare, albeit one who's now flailing, no longer the "it" girl--her erratic behavior is increasingly tabloid fodder. Baxter (Bateman) became a novelist, although at present he's been reduced to profiling a bunch of yahoos who have invented a "spud gun." As the name implies, it shoots potatoes; turns out it's kind of a blast shooting it off in the cornfields, until, as they say, laughing turns to crying, in an accident that sets the movie in motion. 

In the story's present-tense stream, Camille and Caleb have disappeared, gone missing from a rest-stop along a stretch of highway where there had been a rash of murders; blood was found all over the scene. Annie and Baxter are back at the ancestral manor, where Annie watches videotapes of the family's old stunts--these are sort of what passes for home movies, in this family. She's looking for clues. Is this just their boldest "work" yet--the prank to end all pranks--as Annie believes, or are they really dead, as Baxter believes? They have left clues, she insists to Baxter, and we just have to find them. She even has a cork board, replete with diagrams and pictures, just like in the police shows.  

 Somehow in tone even more than in content, the film, for me, evoked Salinger's stories of the family Glass. (It's based on a novel by Kevin Wilson.) In the scenes set in the present, the "kids" move through the shadows and the sunny rooms of the big, empty house of their childhood. A warm hue tinges the scenes set in the past, implying that the unconventional childhood wasn't all bad. Sometimes they really were that merry, close band of thieves, just as Caleb imagined they were. (Jason Butler Harner and Kathryn Hahn play the parents when the kids were young.) 

Whimsical revolutionaries, Caleb and Camille conceived of their art as delightful bids to wake people up--social criticism taken to the streets. They're putting a little excitement into people's lives. There's a bit of contempt for people in the vision: the sheep need to wake up. An unpredictable combustion of the theatrical and "real life," the "pieces" are astonishingly tone-deaf, not to say cruel, on the level of consideration for the psychic consequences for the people they were supposedly enlightening; on the level of conception and execution, they achieve the intended mind-fuck. In certain circles, Caleb and Camille are famous. (I savored a scene in which two art critics (Scott Shepherd and Steve Witting) wind each other up by debating the genius-or-junk merits of the Fangs' work.)  

We do get the impression the pranks were occasional things for Annie and Baxter--that for the most part, theirs was a more typical upbringing of school and a big rambling house. That said, there is a scene involving Annie and Baxter's school production of "Romeo and Juliet" I won't forget. I won't reveal it, except to say it somehow fulfills all their parents' ambitions of showing people something truly beautiful and utterly scandalous at once.  

Even as seniors, Caleb and Camille still wage war against the complacencies of capitalist/consumer society, though the culture has long since absorbed all such resistance. In a funny scene, they try to prank the clerks at a fast food stand by handing out fake coupons for free sandwiches, but the workers passively, cheerfully honor the faux documents. Caleb is outraged: nobody even has the decency to understand they're being hoodwinked anymore--to get mad about the illusory constructs of the society, thereby taking the first steps towards liberating themselves from them. Such resistance is no longer even a concept.

As Annie, Nicole Kidman gets a role that's a wink at her own career's vicissitudes. What a deft performer she is in the key of comedy/drama. Think of her turn not only in this film, but in "Margot at the Wedding."

As Camille, Plunkett telegraphs so much that's unspoken: the hurt, the sacrifice, the guilt about what she had to do--essentially, sacrifice the kids as art projects as a way of making Caleb interested enough to stay. At times when she looks at him she's humoring him; sometimes it's with pity; and always with love. And, yes, fear. She hides her own own paintings, for fear they would be seen as a betrayal by this imperious, stubborn, brilliant man. Walken's well-cast as Caleb, and together they ring true as a longtime couple.  

In a way, Plunkett's Annie shows what a woman gives up for the male "artiste," just as Kidman's Annie is a satirical look at what a woman has to put up with in Hollywood. (There's a scene where a wheedling director tries to cajole a recalcitrant Annie into appearing topless, and she turns the tables in a way that her dad, for one, digs.)

Bateman's always had fine comic timing as an actor, making even dire movies watchable. With his second feature as a director (I've not seen "Bad Words"), he shows he has it as a director, as well. Perhaps a narrative seam or two shows, but overall he makes nary a wrong step. He's truly good with actors, and he's got visual style--an autumnal one that suits the film's bittersweet flavor. 

There is a wise acceptance in his film. In the glances between brother and sister, and husband and wife, we are witness to people seeing each other for who they really are, and accepting each other as such. Up to a point, that is. "The Family Fang" has a mystery plot, but it's wise enough to know that the real mystery may be precisely those human beings we love the most, whose lives shaped ours in ways too complicated to suss out. There will always be something about them will remain out of reach, unknowable. Why we did what we did can be a mystery, even to ourselves.

In essence, it's the story of a sister and a brother in middle-age, and the bond forged between them in the crucible of a dysfunctional family. (As much as their childhood was the source of their baggage, it's the source of their creativity, as well.) Annie and Baxter would do anything for each other. You may put "The Family Fang" on the shelf alongside perceptive films about brothers and sister such as "The Savages" and "You Can Count on Me."  Of the films I've seen thus far in 2016, this is the one for which I feel the most affection.  

Rating: ****

Key to ratings:

***** (essential viewing)
**** (excellent)
*** (worth a look)
** (forgettable)
* (rubbish!!)

 

Monday
May092016

Cash Only

This suspenseful indie crime film grabs you by the lapel at once and barely lets go. While I have some misgivings--I think its final act is a misstep--it sates your thriller jones. While I don't actually bite my nails, this picture had me eyeing them anxiously.

Nickola Shreli plays the memorably-named Elvis Martini, a Detroit slumlord. Set amidst the working-class Albanian community, the film was written by Shreli himself and directed by Malik Bader ("Crush," "Street Thief"). While I didn't buy everything in Shreli's screenplay, I bought his performance completely. There's a reason it feel so authentic: the character of Elvis is based on his own experiences as a Detroit landlord. (Whether or not, like Elvis, he had had to put a piece in his back pocket before going out to collect the rent on his various properties, we do not know.)  

"Cash Only" is good at economical character development. There's a moment that illustrates what I mean. Elvis is in trouble with money as usual. (Bill collectors darken his doorstep, in the form of the neighborhood bookie, a priest asking after his daughter's tuition, etc.) He tries to get firm with a tenant, who happens to be a lady of the night. He's let her slide for months, but now he really must insist she pay the rent on her seedy room. Desperation flits about his eyes. While he's a big man with a shaved head, we can see he really has no appetite for playing the tough guy. From her "you've got to be kidding me" eye-roll, we can infer a few things more. One, the room's not worth paying for. Two, landlord and tenant perhaps had some kind of "arrangement," if you take my meaning. And three: she doesn't take him seriously in the slightest.

Elvis is tormented by a tragedy of his own making. In the movie's opening moments, we see him at a bar, and in the next instant he's hurtling down the street, bursting into his own apartment, dousing the couch, and setting the place ablaze. He left his phone and drink on the bar--that's his alibi. Thing is, he hadn't counted on his wife getting home early and lying down for a nap; doesn't get her voice-message until he's back at the bar. (In a nice detail, he still uses a flip-phone.)

Killing his wife in an astonishingly boneheaded insurance-fraud scheme doesn't really seen to teach Elvis anything. He's still as feckless as ever when the story picks up some months later. He does, at least, have the good graces to feel guilty about it. It's an achievement of the film that we somehow sympathize with the big galoot, nonetheless. Is he a bad man? Not really. It's more like he has a weakness for life's temptations, and his weakness boxes him in.  

As a bedtime ritual, Elvis's little girl, the apple of his eye, occasionally dials the dead woman's number, just to hear mommy's voice on her voicemail greeting, and to leave her updates on how their lives are going. (The bar alibi must have held up, though Elvis' enemies seem to know the real story; they use it to torment him).

Elvis believes himself to be just a little smarter than the 'hood, and, in fact, he is a bit brighter, or at least less provincial, than most of the people around him. In his ill-advised wager that he'll always be able to dance just a little bit faster than the neighborhood's two-bit hoods, Elvis recalls Cosmo in Cassavetes' "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie," or Charlie in "Mean Streets." Unlike his pals, he is more likely to be amused and curious about difference than offended by it. There is a scene in which Elvis is tickled by his interactions with one of his tenants, a rather fabulous gay man from a more affluent, educated background (an "urban explorer," I suppose), while his friend, the building's odd-job fixit man (Herion Mustafaraj), stands by looking gobsmacked.   

Elvis's shabby building is the kind of place that has surveillance cameras inside the rooms. He occasionally shoots a desultory glance over at the bank of monitors from the couch, as if watching TV. Some of the tenants seems to be half-performing for him, undressing languidly.

The building's denizens include a gruff, gaudy, kindhearted woman who occasionally babysits his daughter. There is a claque of old Albanian ladies, and a party girl (Danijela Stajnfeld) who, while married, happily tosses Elvis some "benefits." (He characterizes this reckless affair in terms of "helping out" some tenants.) Bader himself has a funny turn as a demented pot dealer, Kush, who grows in the basement of one of Elvis's dilapidated buildings, cooing to his plants as if they are his honeys.

One day while glancing at the monitor, he spots the recalcitrant hooker appear to stash something interesting away. Rummaging through her property, he comes upon her little secret: a big bag of money! Well, this is problem solved. He will simply put the woman out, keep her money, pay off his debts, and forget about it. What could possibly go wrong? Soon, he finds himself in receipt of rather disquieting phone calls. A shiver-inducing voice advises Elvis that he now has "big problem." His response to clear and present danger? To smoke up with Kush and have sex with the upstairs neighbor.

(Bader is good at interweaving the "personal" camera into his storytelling style: I think of the moment we spot the neighbor's bottom half flouncing about at the top of the stairs, from Elvis' point of view.)

A conk on the head later, and when he comes to, he discovers his daughter has been kidnapped. From the other end of the phone, his misfiring synapses perceive a demand: cough up $25,000 by midnight, or your daughter gets it. What follows is truly gripping stuff. There is queasy pleasure in watching this man flail, with the stakes life-or-death. He's managed to alienate almost everyone in a position to help him out with money. When he suddenly hits on a scheme to raise the cash, it's either really stupid or really smart, and either way crazy--but it just might work. 

And then he comes face-to-face with true evil, in the person of a depraved dogfighting gangster, devilishly played by Stivi Paskoski. The filmmakers send the sinner, Elvis, to hell, subjecting him to the kind of pain he perhaps deserves. The tonal shift into horror jars, though, and it's a bit below the belt to bring a child into it. (Caged like a dog, his daughter must watch while he is brutalized.) This scene posits redemption through violence, giving us a demon-purging catharsis, a bloody release. It's a hit to the reptile brain for the audience, satisfying and kind of cheap.

Shreli knows these streets, these rooms, these ethnic working-class people. Indeed, I wish the film had gone further in the direction of certain of its strengths, such as its skill at evoking the Detroit demimonde and its colorful neighborhood characters. It could have made more of its feel for the way that vestiges of the old country play out in the day-to-day lives of the sons and daughters of immigrants.

We root for Elvis, though, despite--or perhaps because of--his flaws. He's got heart, tenderness and soul. Despite the flaws in the movie itself, Shreli and Bader have made a cracking, urgent crime thriller, scrappily shot on a shoestring, and fueled by adrenalin and guilt.

(89 minutes)

Cash Only is available on VOD starting May 13, 2016.

Rating: ***

Key to ratings:


***** (essential viewing)
**** (excellent)
*** (worth a look)
** (forgettable)
* (rubbish!!)

Wednesday
Apr132016

CIMMfest No. 8 (April 13-17, 2016)

Karolyn and I look forward to CIMMfest (the Chicago International Movies & Music Festival) every year. Usually she gets me a pass as one of my birthday presents (April 14, nudge, nudge, wink, wink). However, this year we'll be on the road during the fest. We're headed back to Clarksdale--for the second time this year--for the Juke Joint Festival, then it's on to New Orleans for Jazz Fest. Before we hit the road, I wanted to recommend two films playing this year's fest. Both are treats for music lovers.

Bill Evans/Time Remembered

This is a pleasure for jazz aficionados, a stirring, haunting film devoted to the great pianist/composer. As one rememberer puts it, Bill Evans, hunched over in communion with his contemplative, dreamlike piano, told stories in his playing. Particular catnip for connoisseurs: the sections covering Evans's time playing with the Miles Davis Sextet, particularly the world-historic, cool-walkin' "Kind of Blue" sessions in 1959. We hear the beautiful "Flamenco Sketches," based around Evans' signature modal sound (it's based on his "Peace Piece"). Like Satie, this music somehow feels both still and in motion at once, evoking time and space, the turning of the earth. Particularly well-selected photographs capture the jovial spirit of Cannonball Adderly one hears in the grooves of "Kind of Blue." Photographs of Evans's girlfriend Peri Cousins, for whom he wrote "Peri's Scope," are as vivid and unforgettable as stills of a Golden Age actress. We also get glimpses of the storied days of the Bill Evans Trio, with bassist Scott Lafaro and drummer Paul Motian, and their legendary two-week stand at the Village Vanguard in 1961. We learn about Evans's loving bond with his brother, Harry, though his story ends sadly. (Bill wrote "Waltz for Debby" for Harry's daughter Debby, who is interviewed in the film remembering her dad and her uncle). Evans's life was more marked than most by tragedy. The dapper man became a selfish junkie, while still remaining a musician's musician. Making a good music documentary is the art of editing, even moreso than in most films. One must start with good interviews, then chop and stir them evocatively into good performance footage and photographs. Bruce Spiegel has made a well-turned picture in this mold. His film sings and illuminates, and we get to hear plenty of Evans's beautiful piano. Tony Bennett, interviewed in the film, calls his collaboration with Evans his favorite of his career, and leaves us with something Evans once said to him, words he tries to live by: "Search only for truth and beauty."
   
Bill Evans/Time Remembered screens on Saturday, April 16, 2016 at 4:00 p.m. at the Society for Arts, 1112 N. Milwaukee Ave.
 

The Smart Studios Story

This celebratory, sometimes exhilarating film about Smart Studios, and the Madison, Wisconsin musical community for which it was a hub, is something of a portrait of a generation. As someone who was there puts it, the movie chronicles "an innocent time." It reminded me a bit of my youth in 80s southeast Ohio, when I'd load the drums up and go and make some noise in a barn or basement with friends with guitars. We'd tape it on a boombox. This film follows some guys who started pretty much like us, Butch Vig and Steve Marker. Smart Studios more or less got its start in these guys' basements in 1979, when they were fumbling around trying to record Spooner, the band for which Vig played drums. From these roots, they founded Smart in 1983. We get a wistful, evocative look at the Madison scene in the 80s, the clubs, the characters, the WORT deejays, and bands like Die Kreuzen and Killdozer and the Tar Babies. This was a midwestern version of the underground, the zine counter-culture, the do-it-yourself spirit of punk rock. Of not waiting for some gatekeeper to say you're good, but just getting out there and making something. Smart Studios, this "ugly little brick building" on East Wash street, was the clubhouse. Vig became known as the guy who could find the Beatles in your unhinged garage band. Then everything changed and nothing changed. In '90, Smart recorded the demos for Nirvana's "Nevermind" and Smashing Pumpkins' "Gish" and Vig, suddenly and unexpectedly, found what he did for love had taken him to the top of the charts. In the film, he seems modest and non-plussed about being the man who helped shepherd tuneful, relatively raw guitar-bass-and-drum music into the mainstream, the kind of music me and my friends dug in the 80s. (Imagine if the Replacements had a Vig). Even after becoming a star producer, he seems to have stayed himself--just a Midwestern guy. After recording hundreds of guitar-bass-and-drum records, he put his next project together with an ear toward something fresh. This was Garbage, formed in 1993 with their old pal from Spooner, Doug Erickson, and fiery Scottish lass Shirley Manson, both interviewed in the film. Vig played drums, Marker played guitars and keys. The guys spent much of the 90s touring with Garbage, and Smart continued apace, losing some of what made it special after a remodel installed new, professional boards and equipment. Thus, we come to 2010 and...not its fall, exactly. It's more like, as Dave Grohl says, everything has its season, and the season for Smart Studios had come to its end. As more than one witness says, it really never was about money at Smart, just about "reaching out for some kind of connection," as the rousing "New Wave" by Against Me! (played over the end credits) puts it...or even, as someone else puts it, just sending out a youthful 'fuck you' to the world from an angry kid in a basement, like Cobain or Corgan. They just happened to reshape the music industry in their image in the process, this bunch of kids kicking out the jams. The pictures features interviews with everyone from Pumpkins Corgan and Jimmy Chamberlin, to Donita Sparks of L7, to the very last intern Smart Studios ever had. Director Wendy Sheridan was there--she worked at Smart for 18 years. Deploying the basic "verse-chorus-verse" structure of the music doc (talking-head interviews, zooms into photographs, performance footage, a little animation), she has made something catchy and inspiring out of it. Something that, should it reach them, might inspire the next generation to go out and do it. Kind of, come to think of it, like what Vig and Marker did with Smart Studios.

The Smart Studios Story kicks off CIMMfest on Wednesday, April 13 (tonight!) at 7:30 at the Music Box Theatre, 3722 N. Southport. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with Butch Vig, Steve Marker and Wendy Schneider. That'll be followed by a concert at the Metro by the 90s bands Catherine and Negative Examples, featuring former members of the Tar Babies. 

Check out the CIMMfest website for more information on these two films and the rest of what promises to be a full lineup of stimulating experiences on screen and stage.

Friday
Apr082016

Nina Simone on Film: Two approaches

Two documentaries have appeared within the last year or so about Nina Simone, musical genius and rebel. Both appear ahead of Cynthia Mort's feature Nina, with its controversial casting of the relatively fair, beautiful-by-European-standards Zoe Saldana as Simone. Many have taken this as the final insult, and it certainly seems at least the final irony. Maybe Saldana will give a great performance: while Nina has been in the can for a couple of years now, it is only now being released, later this April. A priori critques have pointed out that Saldana had to don makeup and prosthetics in order for the movie to grapple with what was, after all, the existential truth of Simone's life, which was that she lived in a land where her skin was "too dark," her nose "too wide."

First, Karolyn and I popped over to City Winery to see a special screening of The Amazing Nina Simone by Jeff L. Lieberman, an independent, personal project made with the participation of Simone's bothers (most prominently Sam Waymon, who also played organ in her band). It's an absorbing and passionate, yet frustrating, tribute by Lieberman, who wrote, directed and produced. His film celebrates the great freedom singer, and his focus is on the 60s, her greatest years. City Winery has a tremendous sound system, and the music sounded great--as did the grain of that bracing, beautiful voice. (And the wine we ordered was quite nice, as well). Sadly, the film was projected on two rather tiny, faraway screens. Bigger screens when you show films, please, City Winery, so we in the back needn't squint. 

The next day, I had a look at What Happened, Miss Simone? by Liz Garbus, a relatively big-budget production streaming on Netflix, and made with the cooperation of Simone's daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly. She does not appear in Amazing, nor do Simone's brothers appear in What Happened?  

Both tell the story of the life behind the music, well-encapsulated by Claudia Roth Pierpont in her fine article in the New Yorker of August 2014, A Raised Voice.

This was a life, and these were times, full of so much pain. So much violence and torment. As Simone famously told Dr. King the very first time they met: "I'm not nonviolent."

But it began as the story of Eunice Waymon, a gifted young girl born in Tryon, North Carolina in 1933.  A special teacher changed her life--her piano teacher, Muriel Mazzanovich. Eunice called her Miz Mazzy, or “my white momma.” She instilled in Eunice a life-long love of Bach and her dream of becoming the first great black classical pianist (a dream dashed when, years later, she was rejected by the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia).

"Yet as rare as the little girl’s musical gifts," writes Pierpont in an acute observation, "is the way that, in that time and place, those gifts were encouraged."  

Both films are good and worthy. Any project devoted to honestly grappling with the subject of Nina Simone--the amazing, amazing Nina Simone--is one that is manifestly worth doing, and worth your time. These pictures both do that job, and do it in good faith.

Still, it must be said that Garbus' What Happened, Ms. Simone is the better film. It's not just a matter of a bigger budget, but of fashioning the material into something dramatic and cinematic. In terms of the prose of the two films, The Amazing Ms. Simone is relatively prosaic compared to What Happened. Bound and determined to march us briskly through Simone's entire life story, Lieberman is a good storyteller, and yet as the facts accumulate, his approach begins to feel slightly didactic. 

On the other hand, Lieberman's film feels more personal. This is his baby.

I do think Lieberman does a better job than Garbus/Netflix of handling a key incident in Simone's life: as young Eunice sat down to give a piano recital at the age of 11, she noticed her parents being shuffled to the back of the hall to make room for a white couple. She refused to play until they were reseated in the front row. In Lieberman's film, the story is told by Nina's brother; in Garbus, it is dramatized, fleetingly. The way the scene plays in our imagination is more vivid.

A key interview in both films is Al Schackman, a guitarist with a lovely touch who played with Simone for 40 years. From the beginning in the late 50s, Simone and Schackman had an uncanny, wordless communication; onstage, it is something to see. Their bond was forged in the crucible of the 60s. Both films include footage of them playing the song she'd written in the wake of the Birmingham church bombing of 1963, "Mississippi Goddam," at the end of the Selma to Montgomery March. It was March 25, 1965, and they are together there in the spotlight, sending the protest song out into the pitch-black, violent air of the night.  

Both films explore what it might feel like to be free, to live without fear, but What Happened? affords us more glimpses of those moments when Simone lived out what that might mean--and those moments occurred onstage. "I had a couple of times on stage when I really felt free," she once said. When she sings, we see joy, we feel freedom. These are the times we glimpse that galvanic smile. ("Galvanic smile" is a turn of phrase I liked in a recent short story by Kevin Canty in The New Yorker: I immediately thought of Simone). Her fierce dignity is contagious. I think of the footage of "To Be Young, Gifted and Black" performed at Morehouse College in 1969 in What Happened. Students--young women--sing along, their faces beatific. 

For me, the revelatory part about seeing Lieberman's The Amazing Nina Simone with a live audience was when we got to "Four Women." When she hit that number, a section of the audience erupted in cheers. Wow, I thought--that one truly speaks to people, to this day. Strangely, I don't recall the song being featured in What Happened. Nor, come to think of it, do I recall the Netflix production including one of my favorites, her truly scarifying version of Brecht/Weill's "Pirate Jenny." It's in the Lieberman: it sent shivers up my spine when it came over the City Winery sound system.

Lieberman's approach is interview-heavy: he touts the fact that his film includes over 50 interviews. These are mostly good and interesting. However, herein lies the crux of the problem. Often a performance is just gaining steam when someone interrupts. You can't show the whole thing, true, but we're often left wishing for just a bit more. When, late in the film, we see her play some breathtaking piano, in footage from a late-period concert--her gifts had partially been restored, after she finally got some helpful medication--it comes as a surprise when the moment is not immediately interrupted. 

(Lieberman does gets points from me for including a shot, if only for an instant, of Julie Delpy swaying to "Just in Time" from the end of Before Sunset.  It will always be my favorite use of Simone's music on film. I get gooseflesh now even thinking of it.)
 
What Happened? allows Simone to speak for herself. It may be a slicker production, but Simone's charm and charisma blaze. We hear her music for good stretches, and much of the story is actually told by Simone herself, in well-recorded radio interviews and private tapes, smartly edited. The Netflix production had the advantage of being able to look through her journals and notes, as well. 

 

Hers was a life more shadowed than most by darkness, and opportunities for sensationalism abound. In her later years, hope went missing as she was consumed by mental illness and rage and loneliness. Great friends like Lorraine Hansberry and Langston Hughes were gone, MLK was gone. One of the a priori critiques of the upcoming Hollywood biopic is that it appears to focus on her erratic, wild behavior during these years.

Both documentaries mainly veer away from the sensational, though What Happened? perhaps rather lingers on the twisted psycho-sexual, co-dependent relationship between Simone and her husband/manager Andy Stroud. Stroud was not interested in the revolution: he was interested in making a buck. Still, his discipline kept her in shape to perform and got her to the stage of which she'd always dreamed--a concert at Carnegie Hall, in 1963. He was also in the habit of beating her up, and worse. What Happened? features interview footage of the man. Their daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, tells us that after her parents broke up, she eventually settled in to live with her dad after a disastrous sojourn with her mother in Liberia, where Simone was in full-on "mommy dearest" mode. Of her mom and dad, she reckons they "were both crazy." "I love physical violence," Simone once wrote in her diary.

Now, this is one kind of truth, but it's not the truth of why people love Nina Simone. That truth can be found in her records and live performances, where she could be gentle and loving, as well as terrifying and exhilarating. I tend to agree with Lieberman that, as he put it in the Hollywood Reporter, such things are distractions from Simone's "phenomenal musical accomplishments and civil rights stands," the way "she became an international symbol of freedom, pride and artistry."

So, see both of these films. They tell one hell of a sad story, yes, but when she sings, the truth of the life force keeps breaking through. At such moments, the story couldn't be more uplifting. And that's why you shouldn't stop with these two versions of her tale. Do a deep dive on YouTube, watch Nina Simone sing and play in full concerts and live clips. You'll come away with soul and spirit charged.