The Amazing Nina Simone: Fittingly Beautiful, Remarkably Flawed

Source: Still Image from 'The Amazing Nina Simone' Trailer.
Source: Still Image from ‘The Amazing Nina Simone’ Trailer.

The world is finally catching up to Nina Simone.

The Amazing Nina Simone is the latest documentary to feature the perfect storm of strength, attitude, commitment, and virtuoso musical talent that is the late Nina Simone.

With the recent biopic simply titled Nina, seeing both box-office and critical flaccidity, as well as the more successful Netflix funded documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? The Amazing Nina Simone takes another step forward escalating the legend’s household status from rare commodity to mainstream role model.

Technically speaking the biopic Nina came out after The Amazing Nina Simone’s initial screening in October 2015. However, due to its limited release, folks are being exposed to the film region by region. It’s also worth noting that all three films were at the same time, in different stages of production and well aware of each other.

Despite being involved in an apparent purge of Nina Simone cinema, Jeff L Lieberman decided that his story needed telling and would not be saturating the market. Having had a strong backing by Simone’s estate as well as the daughter of the legend, Lisa Simone Kelly as Executive Producer, the makers of What Happened, Miss Simone? only need add Netflix Original programming to the cart and making a splash at Sundance Film Festival was almost automatic; never mind an Oscar nod. The Amazing Nina Simone however, took a far less glamorous and let’s face it, less fiscally gifted approach at telling the Jazz legend’s story.

Getting the rights to tell the Nina Simone story is like hitting the storyline jackpot. With such a volatile period of time socially playing backdrop to a story centred around an individual with the strength of will, mental resolve, stick-to-itiveness and musical gifts both naturally occurring and applied for the story just need a platform and it unravels itself into a compelling tale for the ages.

That said, take nothing away from writer/ director / producer / and Canadian, Jeff L. Lieberman with the storytelling of The Amazing Nina Simone.

Having a consistent and flowing pace to the film and combining it with a well written story arch Lieberman does well to keep the audience captivated from opening to closing credits. Though they had met briefly Lieberman and Simone Kelly both decided to go their own ways in the telling of the Simone story. Instead Lieberman enlisted the perspective and insights of Sam Waymon; Nina Simone’s brother and long-time band member for much of the first hand accounts in the documentary.

From a pure storytelling perspective The Amazing Nina Simone is worth the accolades and recognition quickly being accumulated on the film’s website. While true that Simone’s is a story that practically writes itself, Lieberman does a commendable job of not getting in the story’s way; in this case, less is more. The award-winning journalist turned director Lieberman’s sincere efforts to respect both the legend of as well as the person that was Nina Simone are evident if not flagrant throughout the entire 110-minute documentary.

What has to be criticized however, and perhaps due in part to funding is the overall production of the documentary. Blessed with the sheer volume of source material and media available to tell the story Lieberman got away with one, seemingly not injecting a great deal of time or resource into what was a very formulaic documentary structurally. With the straight ahead approach to his documentary, never straying or chancing away with whimsy The Amazing Nina Simone was in that respect is very un-Nina like. Simone was an artist that purposely made people feel slightly uneasy. Whether it be through vocal delivery when performing, her classically trained style of piano playing that rebelled and willingly strayed from listener expectation, to face-to-face conversations, Simone challenged, innovated and demanded an esoteric approach in her art.

While the plethora of pictures, newspaper clippings, videos and first hand accounts do well to move the story along, the graphics department on the other hand appeared to be an afterthought. Using after effects to animate much of the production, many backgrounds seemed plain, limited and at times even juvenile; three adjectives that are rarely used in a description of anything touched by Nina Simone.  

More egregious than that however, was the decisions and legibility of fonts throughout the feature. The aesthetic of the fonts was fairly transparent and did little to pop out or draw attention to just who we were hearing from on screen. Perhaps because of that I found that guests were often not fonted, or if they were the font would be up for a short duration of time. On the film’s website The Amazing Nina Simone boasts of ‘50 exclusive interviews’, yet with so few of them having prominent name keys to vouch for their reputability, it is hard to gauge the weight of the information being shared.

Whether self-conscious about the quality of guests, or questions of the validity or closeness in the relationship shared between the interviewee and Miss. Simone having the lower thirds come up so irregularly leaves the viewer assuming the worst.

My greatest concern walking out of The Amazing Nina Simone was in the apparent coaching of the guests in how to deliver the stories that they were called to reflect upon.

Many of the persons being interviewed expressing extravagant mannerisms and stage-like gesticulating with voice inflection in their telling of the story akin to that of a parent’s inflection when reading a story to their child. Whether coached by the crew or a collection of hams looking for their 15 minutes of fame, the exaggerated and obnoxious delivery falls on Lieberman, whose job it is to ensure that his documentary is not being delivered in way that is so unknowingly campy that it does more to discredit the film’s reputability than to enhance it.

Speaking to the budget, we as an audience have become accustomed to scenes being interspliced with others in documentaries with different often-inferior iphone optics. Though often used out of necessity for once in a lifetime shots, cut-aways such as street signs and memorials are often planned, shot listed, storyboarded and therefore used by the first unit camera and camera crew; and not taken from a Smartphone, as the documentary appeared to have done in the aforementioned scenarios.

Lastly, inconsistent audio levels were often subtle, however a few times during the feature voice levels were curiously jacked up to a point of visible discomfort among audience members.

With any luck with this production Lieberman displayed the storytelling chops sufficient to gain additional funding for his next passion project, should he have one in the queue.  

Would I watch The Amazing Nina Simone, again? Absolutely. For storytelling, pacing and sheer entertainment alone, The Amazing Nina Simone made 110 minutes feel like 60, never once uncomfortably shifting around in my chair.

The production shortfalls aside this story needed to be told, and from this angle. It is clear in the nurturing way that the award-winning journalist Lieberman pursued The Amazing Nina Simone, that he is truly passionate about the subject matter.

If you are a fan of Nina Simone, it is a must see. If you are not a fan, you will be after this film.

At the very least if the music of Nina Simone does not hit you in the heart like it does so many others The Amazing Nina Simone will have you empathize with a courageous and strong willed women. A woman that due to the period in time and own personal stubbornness dealt with just about everything the outside world could throw at someone, as well as dealt with much of what one’s internal world could heave their way; an internal world that both medical and social science face an uphill battle in trying to understand.    

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