Review: Issues of 'Nina' much more than skin-deep

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Posted: Apr 20, 2016 1:49 PM
Review: Issues of 'Nina' much more than skin-deep

The questionable casting of Zoe Saldana is only one of the many problems with Cynthia Mort's limp and misjudged Nina Simone biopic "Nina." Little of the High Priestess of Soul's searing clarity of voice or profound struggle comes through in this insipid film whose fakeness is writ across Saldana's dubiously darkened skin.

"Please take Nina's name out of your mouth. For the rest of your life" was the harsh judgment laid on Saldana by Simone's estate. Bitter battles over to whom an artist belongs are seldom good for anyone. But it's reasonable to question whether Simone's story should be in the hands of those who would employ black face to capture a proudly dark-skinned woman.

It should be said: It's no easy task to gather the multitudes within Simone into a feature film. She was, like her music, unclassifiable. The classically trained pianist was termed a jazz singer and a soul diva, but she's been most identified as a folk singer. As if another form of resistance in a life full of it, her career refused to bend to the typical arc found in music biopics. She had only one top 20 single (her first, 1959's "I Loves You, Porgy") and spent much of her later life in self-imposed exile in Barbados, Liberia and France.

Why Mort, who wrote and directed the film, has chosen to focus on Simone's troubled 1990s period in France is anyone's guess. It allows for a fiery kind of redemption story, going from heavy drinking and medical meltdown to a triumphant Central Park performance. But the film is a sloppily stitching of lethargic scenes between Simone and her assistant, Clifton (a sleepy David Oyelowo), in a French Riviera villa. Arguments over taking pills are possibly the least dramatic or important moments in a life that pulsed with and provided the impassioned tempo to the civil rights movement.

An increasingly unhinged Simone meets Clifton in a Los Angeles hospital where she has landed after pulling a gun on a record executive. Clifton, a sympathetic nurse whose awareness of Simone is limited to his mother's vinyl collection, catches her eye. She plops down a wad of cash and tells him to accompany her to France as her personal assistant.

The majority of the film plays out between Simone and Clifton, as he tries to clean her up and get her back on the stage. The scenes are almost hermetically sealed, with few other characters of note and scant political or musical context to Simone's rich story. The deep rage and sorrow of "Mississippi Goddamn" is nowhere to be found here.

Saldana, of "Avatar" and "Guardians of the Galaxy," curiously varies her accent in flashback and present day scenes. In numerous song performances she sounds professional enough, but lacks any hint of Simone's power or gravity. (Simone was in her 60s during the majority of "Nina.")

Seek out instead Liz Garbus' 2015 documentary "What Happened, Miss Simone?" which knows enough not to simplify the complex Simone. Or pull up the footage that finished that film on YouTube: an extended performance of Simone singing "I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free."

There, in just over three glorious minutes, is so much more of Simone's essence. With the band locked in groove and the crowd chanting "Because I know," she — in full thrall to the music — slides out from the piano, bobs her head, claps her hands frenetically, shakes her body and shouts.

"Nina," an RLJ Entertainment release, is not rated by the Motion Picture Association of America. It contains adult language and some violence. Running time: 90 minutes. One star out of four.

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Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP