“The Amazing Nina Simone”: A trailblazing musician gets a familiar documentary

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“The Amazing Nina Simone” opens Friday at Sundance Cinemas. Not rated, 1:42, two stars out of four.

All of a sudden, the movies can’t get enough of Nina Simone. Earlier this year came “What Happened Miss Simone?” a fine, haunting documentary by Liz Garbus that premiered on Netflix. Tentatively set for December is “Nina,” a controversial biopic starring Zoe Saldana as the late jazz singer and David Oyelowo as her aide and confidant.

Coming in between is “The Amazing Nina Simone,” an independent documentary that’s clearly a labor of love from writer-producer-director Jeff L. Lieberman. While “What Happened” relied heavily on audio interviews with Simone and intimate interviews with her daughter Lisa, Lieberman had access to neither.

He compensates by drawing from a wealth of sources, most notably some of Simone’s siblings, particularly her brother Sam Waymon. “The Amazing Nina Simone,” named after her first album and how she was often (and rightfully billed), is as thorough and solid as an A-plus term paper. But so many sources, coupled with the respectful distance Lieberman preserves from some of the more troubling moments of Simone’s life, leads to a film that’s informative but only intermittently engaging. It’s the liner notes, not the album.

The film opens with audio recordings of Simone in the studio in 1969, admonishing her backing band, “You’re pushing, you’re pushing. Relax.” But the film also pushes, as Lieberman briskly tries to pack as much information about Simone’s biography into the film as he can, beginning with her days as a child prodigy in North Carolina, then her rise through the Greenwich Village scene of the early 1960s. Finally, she becomes a singer unlike any other — jazz, blues and soul all ingredients to be drawn from rather than traditions to be adhered to.

At every rung on the ladder, Simone felt alone, and saw discrimination against African-Americans — as a young pianist, she saw from the stage as her parents were escorted from the front row to make room for white people. In an act of defiance that would become a hallmark of her life, she refused to play until they were seated.

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“The Amazing Nina Simone” could have used more stories like that, and less of the straight biography (often conveyed by Lieberman’s straightforward, public-television narration) of which label she signed to or which festival she performed at. Even the retelling of Simone’s later years, when she became a furious civil rights activist and was later almost destroyed by an undiagnosed bipolar disorder, seem curiously brisk and passionless.

“Amazing” shares some clips with “What Happened Miss Simone?” and it certainly covers more ground, so someone who just wants to learn about Simone’s life will appreciate the film’s thoroughness. But if they want to understand her, “What Happened” gets closer to the mark.

 

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