Tag Archives: Oscar

What Happened, Miss Simone?

What Happened, Miss Simone? Is a familiar story powerfully told in this Oscar nominated documentary from Liz Garbus (Bobby Fischer Against the World, The Farm: Angola, USA). By that, I mean this: Nina Simone’s story is familiar to those who’ve lived in close proximity to or have studied artists and the emotional makeup that often times drives them forward while also driving them mad. In the realm of popular music, Brian Wilson and Loretta Lynn come to mind.

The movie’s title, which comes from a Maya Angelou poem, drives the thesis of the film, which uses Miss Simone’s own voice in the form of interviews and concert footage to sift through the details of her remarkable life to find out just what happened.

“But what happened, Miss Simone? Specifically, what happened to your big eyes that quickly veil to hide the loneliness? To your voice that has so little tenderness, yet flows with your commitment to the battle of Life? What happened to you?” – Maya Angelou

The story opens in 1976, as Simone takes the stage at the Montreaux Jazz Festival. After she’s introduced, she takes the stage and stands at her piano in an odd pose as the applause dies down. After the room has gone silent, she remains frozen, creating an awkward moment reminiscent of Andy Kaufman-esque performance art – a move designed to seize control of the moment by putting the crowd off balance perhaps.

What Happened, Miss Simone?Finally, Simone takes her seat, and after some nervous patter and adjusting of the microphone, she acknowledges a promise made long ago never to perform at jazz festivals, once again raising that question: “What happened?!” From there, she says she’ll answer the question by taking us all the way back to the beginning, which is where Garbus takes us next, filling in the biographical details of Simone’s early life.

Nina Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina on February 21, 1933. The film hardly mentions her parents, but her mother was a Methodist minister and housemaid. Simone began taking piano lessons by the age of four and quickly showed promise at the instrument, which she played in the churches where her mother preached.

Two white women, one of whom employed Simone’s mother, saw Simone’s talents and endeavored to see that she received training, which led to a goal of Simone becoming the first African-American female classical concert pianist.

In addition to lessons, the women began a fund which was used to send Simone to Philadelphia to attend the Curtis Institute. Simone was rejected, and believed that her denial was solely based upon the color of her skin. From there, she went to Julliard, where she studied until the money ran out.

Having to earn an income, Simone began playing in nightclubs, which her mother opposed. This led to the adoption of the new name and, at the demand of a club owner, the addition of singing to her playing. Soon after, her career took off in earnest.

Because of Simone’s rigorous training, she was a hit with the jazz musicians who respected her technical ability as much as her soulful playing and singing. As the 60’s hit full swing, Simone was established as a rising star in popular music.

Along the way, she met her husband, a New York vice squad sergeant named Andy Stroud, who retired from the force and became her manager. At first, Stroud’s firm hand and devotion were welcomed by Simone, but as the years went by, their relationship became volatile and marked by physical abuse that became so bad, Simone wrote in her diary of wanting to commit suicide.

As Simone’s star rose, it was Stroud who was pushing her, keeping her to an aggressive schedule that positioned her with the jazz fans as well as the more mainstream pop fans. The money began to pour in and their coterie of friends included the biggest names in African-American culture and politics: James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X and his family, who were neighbors and confidants.

Simone and Stroud had a daughter, whom Simone formed a complicated relationship with. Wanting to be a good mother, Simone also wanted to be a star (with a busy schedule orchestrated by her husband/manager). It seems like being Miss Simone won out over being just mom most of the time.

As the 60’s were marked by the violent deaths of one African-American civil rights activist after another, not to mention the general violence against African-Americans that was occurring all over the south, the accumulative effect on Miss Simone, who became increasingly political throughout the decade, came to a head after the murder of Dr. King in 1968. As her politics, along with her music and live performances, veered towards the radical, record sales began to dwindle, as did demand for her live performances.

In 1970, Simone left Stroud, her daughter and the United States and eventually settled in Liberia for some time. At first, she seemed liberated by the freedom from responsibilities and the oppression of racism, but her inner demons seemed inescapable. As the decade wore on, the need to earn a living sent her to Europe, where bad luck, bad decisions and bad health sent Simone into a tailspin.

Simone’s bouts of “anger” devolved into madness, and with the help of an old friend/side man and a former business partner, she received medical help in the form of a diagnosis of bi-polar disorder and a regimen of prescription medication that helped her to cope while slowly destroying her motor skills in the process.

When we catch up to Simone at Montreaux in 1976, we have a different understanding of the significance of this unlikely return. Earlier, we witness an interview, where Simone expounds on the meaning of freedom. After groping for an answer, she finally settles on the answer – no fear. Having settled in on that answer, you can see that she has struck a deep nerve within herself that the interviewer completely missed.

In that 1976 performance, Simone confronts an audience member who has distracted her. When the moment passes and Simone returns to the music, she’s obviously rattled and takes a beat to re-compose herself. The look in Simone’s eye is not the same as the self-possessed artist of 1960, who’d yet to feel the crushing weight of celebrity, the crushing defeat of the murder of dear friends and the crushing accumulation of whatever those demons were that pursued her, be they mental illness or something else.

What Happened, Miss Simone? paints a vivid portrait of a sensitive artist with a towering gift who performed a profound act of fearlessness in giving us, in her art, herself.

2011 Academy Award Nominee: Best Documentary Feature – Exit Through the Gift Shop

Exit Through the Gift Shop is a fascinating peek into the world of what most folks would call graffiti, but others call street art.  The film, a surprise nomination for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, has become a magnet for controversy, speculation, and curiosity seekers.

At the heart of the controversy is the film’s director, Banksy, the Garbo of the street art world.  I have no idea where Banksy ranks among street artists, but one thing is certain, he’s the shrewdest of the bunch at manipulating his image, much like Madonna when she was still relevant.  He’s shot like a whistle-blower or mob informant on the six o’clock news with an omnipresent hoodie pulled up and his voice lowered a few octaves.  Of course, this only adds to the mystery.

The controversies have to do with the authenticity of the film.  Some say it’s a hoax.  Others say that it’s not.  Many see the film as a commentary on the relationship between artist, audience, and commerce. There’s been a claim of plagiarism that could end up being part of an elaborate PR campaign to drum up interest in the film.  Whatever the truth of the controversies, one thing’s for certain – the movie is great.

Banksy opens the film by being interviewed, and he quickly introduces the co-protagonist of the story, Thierry Guetta, a Frenchman living in Los Angeles.

Guetta is a cross between Charlie Chaplin and Ambrose Burnside, a voluble speaker with a goofy charm and infectious enthusiasm.  Guetta owns a thrift store in a bohemian neighborhood in LA, but an aimless obsession with videotaping almost every facet of his life led him to a cousin in Paris – known as Space Invader – who was part of the emerging street art phenomenon.  Guetta accompanied Space Invader on missions into the Paris night to bomb walls with his installations of mosaic recreations of Space Invader characters.

Meeting Space Invader and his friends was a turning point for Guetta, and a new obsession was born.  Back in LA, Guetta soon met Shepard Fairey, an American street artist who would become as famous for his iconic Obama poster (think the Obama-ize feature that was popular on Facebook for a while) as he was for his Obey campaign.  Fairey was a jumping off point for meeting and collecting other street artists, who didn’t mind having the friendly Frenchman along to document work that might take months of planning, hours of sometimes dangerous application, only to have it ripped down or painted over in a fraction of the time.

Artists are like trophies to Guetta, and the relationship between him and them is like observing a mutually beneficial relationship between parasite and host.  The bombing forays that Guetta documents are exciting and sometimes perilous, and that he shared in the danger earned him a place in their circle.  Over time he set his sights on Banksy, the elusive Englishman with the nerve of a cat burglar.  As Guetta pursued Banksy on his own, Shepard Fairey brought Banksy to Guetta’s backyard when Banksy visited LA and asked for a guide to help him find good walls to bomb.

It was a dream come true that led to an unlikely friendship, like Jimmy Olson and Superman becoming drinking buddies, and as the relationship is detailed, we also see the rise of Banksy as an international art commodity, having shows and being fawned over by the art world’s intelligentsia.

Guetta’s entre into the world of the street artists was that he was a filmmaker.  The funny thing is, no one ever called his bluff until Banksy finally asked him to put together the long-promised street art documentary, in part to show critics that he hadn’t sold out and that street art was about more than hype.

Guetta never planned on turning his thousands of hours of film into an actual movie.  The cassettes were merely boxed, stored, and forgot about.  Guetta’s movie, Life Remote Control, convinced Banksy that his friend was no filmmaker.  Banksy convinced Guetta to return to LA and pursue art and have a show so that he could take over the project and make a proper film.  What he made was the story about what happened when an eccentric Frenchman tried to make a documentary about Banksy.

Exit Through the Gift Shop is part shaggy dog story, part buddy film, part quixotic adventure, and finally, a snapshot of the various talents who prowl the streets of the world’s cities, leaving their mark on the walls of those cities, if only for a short while.

Thierry Guetta is as fascinating a figure as Banksy in that they are complete opposites.  It’s a shrewd move by Banksy to frame his story this way.  As secretive as he is, Guetta is like a negative image, all open and forthcoming.  Where Banksy is cool, Guetta is a dopey tag-along, a sort of kid brother to the artists he adores.

There’s one final surprise in Exit Through the Gift Shop, where Banksy seems to be making a statement about the art world that amounts to biting the hand that feeds him.  Perhaps it’s an attempt to buy back some of his street cred.  Or maybe it’s just good entertainment.  Either way, after seeing this movie you’ll never look at graffiti the same way again.