Update 1/14/2016: Both of these fine films have been nominated for Academy Awards for Documentary Feature. Congrats to the filmmakers.
Roughly a month ago, and within 2 weeks of each other a pair of movies were released that explored the tumultuous and troubled lives of world famous singers – Nina Simone and Amy Winehouse. While their bodies of work are drastically different in size and scope, the impact their music had is not.
In this post, we’ll look at the films on their own, as well as how these two artists’ turbulent lives were at times all too similar.
What Happened, Miss Simone?
She stands confrontationally at the front of the stage while the audience cheers emphatically. The cheering and applause die down, but her stare does not shorten in length.
Not angry, nor disdainful.
Not uncomfortable either.
She’s alone among hundreds.
Her stare is broken as she sits at the piano, says, “hello” and an audience member cracks a joke. Her stare turns to a wide smile, as she centers herself.
She is Nina Simone, and this is “What Happened, Miss Simone?” The story of a great American entertainer, singer, songwriter, and activist.
Her early life is profiled through photographs and interviews where we learn young Eunice Waymon started playing the piano at 3, where her immediate appreciation of Bach paved the way for hours of practicing, endless recitals, and subsequently a more personal form of segregation – both prejudiced and self-inflicted by her pursuit of a dream: to be the first black classical pianist in America. We learn that she studied at Juilliard, only to be turned down in her early twenties by the Curtis Institute of Music.
We find out later she was denied because she was black. And so, as one might expect, freedom is at the heart of this biographical documentary.
Simone’s voice was born out of necessity when she became a nightclub performer in Atlantic City to support her family and keep her job as the talent at bars. By 1960, she made her way to the Newport Jazz Festival. She didn’t even play piano, yet she was still mesmerizing. Perhaps this was the first time she’d ever performed without a piano, in the footage shown, she’s moving her forearms as though she’s running through the chords.
She gains fame for her rendition of “I Loves You, Porgy,” so much fame that she ends up on the Playboy Penthouse with Hugh Hefner. That was a jolt.
It is around this time that we’re introduced to her husband, Andrew Stroud. A former policeman, he quit the force and became her manager. He helps Simone jumpstart her career, they form a family, and generally gets her act together. Not long after, Simone found her way to Carnegie Hall but saw her performance as a compromise, as she wasn’t performing classical piano, but rather jazz tunes. In a letter home she wrote ‘Yes, I’m in Carnegie Hall, finally, but I’m not playing Bach.’ It makes you think that perhaps her entire career was a compromise for her.
Back to Stroud, though, after he’s introduced you immediately sense something is amiss with him. Simone started to claim Stroud pushed her too far, and that he would abuse her physically and sexually. We soon learn that Simone suffers from severe depression and are shown numerous journals showing her decline, her dependence on pills, even decreasing desire to live. Eventually, mutual justification of abuse starts to occur, and it would appear mutual physical abuse. Her journals detail Simone having a love of violence.
Her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, says they’re both nuts.
As racial tension escalates in Birmingham, Simone finds a new purpose to her music and life. She records the stunning song, “Mississippi Goddam” one of the first protest songs, escalating the discussion of Civil Rights to pop-culture status. Simone identified with the Civil Rights movement outside of her upbringing as a black woman in the early 20th Century in America. She saw parallels in her struggle as a musician, a struggle that continued into her successful days as a performer. When she found success with what she called Civil Rights Music, she found her true voice: “blackness, black power.”
Throwing the entirety of herself into the movement, she doubled down on her beliefs, aligning with the violent opposition of Malcolm X. This was now her all-encompassing ethos.
In the second half of the film, we delve more deeply into her ongoing depression, her marital difficulties, mutual infidelity, as well as the impact of the end of the movement.
While being a great documentary on Nina Simone, the movie is more of a linear documentary of black America during the mid-20th century, told through Simone’s life. There may not be any better vehicle to tell the story either. She was the center of everything about the 20th Century, but this story doesn’t end in America. Simone fled to Liberia, to bring her civil rights mission full circle.
Unfortunately, it didn’t bring her peace. Her troubles magnified, she began to live nomadically. She stopped performing and began to hate everything about her old life.
Moving to Switzerland, she played Montreux in 1976.
This is where we started the film. While a tremendous overall performance, it’s marred by an uneven moments, odd banter, and more confrontations with the audience. It’s clear that something bigger than Simone is influencing her, and so unsurprisingly she’s diagnosed as manic depressive soon after. I like empowering and encouraging stories of mental health being diagnosed with friends and family coming together. Though I don’t enjoy it being painted as a Deus ex machina. Just because she was medicated and easier to deal with doesn’t mean it’s the best solution… though it may have saved her life.
Her daughter, Kelly expressed concerns that the medication was used to exploit her mother’s talents. Afterward, Simone was able to play again but remained alone as her medicine slowly destroyed her motor skills.
Reflecting on her life and relationships, Simone said, “everything has had to be sacrificed for the music.” One could argue this includes her dreams as well, as after an entire life of vital music and politics, she still lamented her missed dream of being a classic pianist. Although she fought for her fame, for her recognition, for her rights and her race, she was never free.
On the last verse of “Happy Birthday,” a voice older than her years pours out of a north London teenager. This is 14-year-old Amy Winehouse, and from the first seconds on the screen you can feel her star power. Her personality is absolutely infectious from this home-movie of a birthday party. It all starts with laughing, joking, and acting like kids; we’re almost tricked into this believing this innocence could last.
But we all know the story.
Or at least, we thought we did.
In the first half hour or so of the film, Amy, we watch her ascent from a teenager playing guitar and writing poetry, to a featured singer with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, to a young lounge singer covering standards and turning her poetry into new jazz standards, to an audition at Island Records all in a matter of just a few years. This is the trajectory of person driven to be a star.
Though, that wasn’t true for Winehouse. Far too early into the documentary we hear the saddest soundbite portending her demise, “I don’t think I’m gonna be at all famous. I don’t think I can handle it. I would probably go mad, you know what I mean? I would go mad.”
Throughout the film we’re reminded of Winehouse’s fear of being alone, her anxiety, her need for structure, and her inability to cope with the world around her. We’re also shown the complete lack of support from nearly everyone in her life, save a couple of her lifelong childhood mates.
Her mother tells a couple chilling tales detailing a severe lack of common sense. One about a very self-aware and very young Winehouse telling her she was “too soft” and unable to control her, practically begging her mother for discipline. Another story shows how Winehouse suffered from bulimia since she was a teenager, and that she frankly told her mother at 15, “I have this great way of dieting. I just, like, eat whatever I want and then I just kind of bring it up.” Her mother never took her seriously, assuming it was something Winehouse would grow out of.
Similarly, her father is put under the microscope. Winehouse recalls, “my dad was never there growing up,” and that to her, “he was all we needed.” She also pinpoints her rebellious spirit to the day her dad walked out on the family. Interestingly, he makes up for lost time later on, after her fame and fortune. Including famously keeping her from being admitted to rehab at a pivotal point in her life.
In 2005 she moved to Camden, fell into the drug-riddled scene that gave birth to The Libertines, and met her future husband Blake Fielder. Their love was unhealthy, and his introduction in her life brought heroin and crack cocaine with it. Fielder confirmed this in 2008, “I made the biggest mistake of my life by taking heroin in front of her,” he said. “I introduced her to heroin, crack cocaine, and self-harming. I feel more than guilty.” He’d bring a constant struggle to Winehouse’s life, as their co-dependent behavior led her to pursue everything Fielder pursued. Her only reprieve came after he was arrested and sentenced to prison for 6 months.
Though we’re taken through her entire career, including many behind-the-scenes shots of her recording Back to Black, her intimate recording session of “Body and Soul” with Tony Bennett for Duets II, and fantastic footage of her amazing 2008 Grammy night, it all takes a back seat to the exploration of her struggles, her addictions, and her exploitation.
The amazing thing this film does is introducing you to the Amy Winehouse that you didn’t know. The sarcastically witty, humble, young star that loved music. The woman that acted like a star-struck young girl when singing with Tony Bennett. The singer that loved jazz and hated pop music so much she told Mark Ronson she hated his music, and rolled her eyes at a reporter for merely bringing up Dido’s album.
By the end of the film, it’s hard not to have fallen in love with her, which only made the last few scenes detailing her death that much harder to take. It was as though her whole life happened again during the 120 minutes of Amy.
Such it was for Winehouse, a natural star that never wanted to be.
Nina & Amy
The first, and most obvious, comparison to make between these two is in their voice. It’s very clear that Winehouse was influenced (though maybe not directly) by Simone. They shared a beautifully deep and at times guttural sound that sets them apart from their contemporaries.
Like Simone, Winehouse wasn’t shooting for fame and fortune. Though convenience and wealth made it easier for Winehouse to get her foot in the door. Both women cut their teeth in nightclubs, performing jazz standards earning fans along the way. What was different for Amy, was having her close friend Nick Shymansky as her manager. Their close and caring relationship helped foster her success and kept her indulgences relatively at bey.
There was an immediacy in both of their hit songs, “Rehab” and “Mississippi Goddam.” These songs are born of the reality of their writer’s lives. “Mississippi Goddam” was the earliest original lyrical piece of music supporting the Civil Rights movement and struck a chord at the right time and place. It can’t work a minute earlier or later and needed to happen to Nina Simone. The lyrics are honest, but what is heard even louder is Simone’s intense feelings, she is screaming, “This is my life goddammit” through a rollicking rag. She sang it at Selma, Carnegie Hall, in Greenwich Village, it would be hard for anyone to ignore the purpose and urgency.
In contrast, “Rehab” was completely lost on the public and became a pre-funk song for a night of partying. While it could be debated whether it was a “cry for help,” it was definitely another songwriter screaming “this is my life goddammit,” the difference was no one took Winehouse seriously.
Both singers spent their lives in front of cameras. A feat that is remarkable to think about for Simone. Not only was television was invented during her lifetime, but she was black in early 20th century America. The fact that we have any footage is amazing. The footage of Winehouse makes more sense given the era, but there is a remarkable amount of home-movie footage, more than many of her contemporaries. It’s an added dimension to both women’s careers as we’re constantly reminded of the pressures on them to appear in front of an unseen audience.
Both Nina Simone and Amy Winehouse were seeking freedom. Freedom to perform their music. To entertain audiences, and to make a better life for themselves. Freedom took on different meanings as their careers progressed. By the end, they both craved the freedom to be themselves and be true to their music, not other people’s expectations.
An artist doesn’t need to be an entertainer. She doesn’t need to be pleasant, or even look like she’s enjoying herself. It’s art, and the “tortured artist” is always chastised despite her talents.
As an audience, we expect something more from artists. Something better than ourselves. We demand it at their shows, complaining that the set was too short or lacked our favorite song. We judge their output as age and other life events begin to influence their career. We project their art as an extension of our feelings and experiences even though we were never involved in the creation.
Our relationship with artists is entirely one-sided and unfair.
And it’s doubly unfair for a woman.