- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 20, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION

Nina Simone was a tortured, tormented artist, whose music belied a soul in perdition. That she was also haunted by mental illness only added to her pain — and, inarguably, to the greatness of her voice.

Portions of her latter life are recreated in “Nina” from writer-director Cynthia Mort, with Zoe Saldana in the lead role of the troubled singer and David Oyelowo as her much-burdened, much younger, manager Clifton Henderson.

Interspersing Simone’s post-breakdown escape to Paris with episodes from her younger life, Ms. Mort weaves a reliable, if not particularly surprising, narrative that tries to explicate some of the demons whose devil songs taunted Simone ever so consistently. As the older Simone Miss Saldana positively shines, inveighing her character with a world-weary disenchantment well beyond the actress’ 37 years. “Nina” has Miss Saldana trade in her considerable sex appeal for a broken spirit, drowning out her sorrows in drink, casual sex and worse.

Mr. Oyelowo has the less-thankful job of portraying the put-upon manager, coach and, at times, rescuer. Mr. Oyelowo is incapable of a poor performance, but the film gives him tragically little to do other than look forlorn and frustrated as Simone once again gets drunk and stoned, falls down in public, throws empty bottles, screams at him and others and, in general, displays an unpleasantness that few would be willing to bear.

The film’s most humorous sequence has Simone tracking Clifton down to his family home after he has told her no more. His parents (the always amusing Keith David and Ella Joyce) see only a celebrity they have long admired, and cannot understand why Clifton would not wish to continue working for her. Mr. Oyelowo finds the right note of appearing flustered that an outsider appears to be praising him when she is actually charming his parents into approval while allowing his ego to eat at him from within to give Simone yet another chance.

It is a break from the gloomy portrait of Simone throughout. Hers was not a happy life, but what redeemed her, of course, was her music. Miss Saldana masters the scenes of Simone casting a spell over a crowd just as well as she channels the self-destruction in the drunken sequences. In one Parisian juke joint, Simone completely loses her cool when scarcely any patrons can be bothered to raise their eyes from their drinks.

The tense ambiguousness of the relationship between Simone and Henderson in the films strikes as a bit unnecessary (in real life, Henderson was gay) and perhaps a bit too much of a beat borrowed from other pics about an older, past-her-prime woman and a younger man. Miss Saldana and Mr. Oyelowo do their best with what they are given, but it feels like too much melodrama on top of a life that is already full enough of real-life tempestuousness.

What bothered me most of all was that Miss Saldana is never made to look the age and level of decrepitness that Simone was at during the film’s time period, nor is she made up to appear youthful in the sequences of Simone in younger, perhaps better, times. It is a curious misstep on the part of the production to give short shrift to the aging of its heroine.

Nina” hits all the tried-and-true tropes of the musical biopic, including a late-act attempt at public redemption before an enthusiastic crowd that assures the artist she is still remembered. Perhaps “Nina,” like Nina Simone herself, only needed to be reassured that the public still cares.

Rated R: Contains free-wheeling four-letter words, drug use and binge-boozing, some sex and lots of screaming.

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