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FILM REVIEW: WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE? + #albumoftheday REVIEW: NINA REVISITED: A TRIBUTE TO NINA SIMONE

FILM: WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE?

I recently watched the compelling new documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? on Netflix for which it is their first ever original documentary. It was very well-directed by Academy Awarnd-nominated director Liz Garbus and it’s the first Nina Simone biopic ever fully supported and approved by her Estate.

It begins when Nina was just a young child, playing classical piano. It was her lifelong dream to be the first black, female classical pianist. Unfortunately, it’s not a goal she ever accomplished, but she certainly accomplished many other things, among them becoming one of the world’s most successful jazz pianists and singer/songwriters, not to mention a crucial political activist. Along with interview footage, the film tells her story through never-before-heard audio tapes recorded over the course of three decades, most of which were recorded by interviewers and would-be biographers. Additionally, the film shows excerpts from her intimate diaries, making it as revealing and fascinating as you could possibly ever expect a biopic to be. But the film does more than teaching you the history of Nina Simone. It makes you feel for her. When she’s on top, you feel inspired and happy for her. And when her political activism all but kills her career, you feel her pain. It’s one of the more breath-taking documentaries I’ve ever seen and I highly recommend it. Even if you’ve never been a fan of her music, it’s a riveting human interest story.

ALBUM: NINA REVISITED: A TRIBUTE TO NINA SIMONE

To coincide with the release of What Happened, Miss Simone?, RCA Records has just released Nina Revisited: A Tribute To Nina Simone, which includes covers of 15 eclectic Nina Simone tracks along with a song by Nina herself, the emotive “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free.”

The star of the tribute is Ms. Lauryn Hill, who performs six tracks: “Feeling Good,” “I’ve Got Life,” “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” “Black is The Color Of My True Love’s Hair,” “Wild Is The Wind” and “African Mailman.” While some of the other artists appearing on the album have put their own twists on Nina’s songs, Ms. Lauryn Hill’s renditions are mostly faithful. The first to appear is “Feeling Good,” which appears after a brief intro by Nina’s daughter Lisa called “My Mama Could Sing.” As you may know, “Feeling Good” begins acapella and Hill has never sounded better. Her voice isn’t quite the way I remembered it, apparently having matured over the years, but not in any bad way; I find her voice here more appealing. Maybe it’s just that these songs suit her so well? After listening to the album, I immediately found myself hoping that Hill will make an original vocal jazz album of her own and one should think she might be veering in that direction to be so involved here. Perhaps Hill’s greatest contribution on hand is her rendition of “I’ve Got Life,” one of Nina’s lengthy protest songs. Where Nina delivered most of the lyrics as spoken word, as seen in the film, Hill’s version would seem to be sped up. In fact, Hill basically raps the spoken word parts. It’s a genius turn that adds extra intensity to Nina’s still relevant words.

Usher is one of the artists who’s taken a lot of creative license here with his rendition of “My Baby Just Cares For Me” performed as a smooth, soulful R&B number. The album was produced by Jaysonackson, Suzette Williams, Peter Edge and Robert Glasper and I’m assuming that this track was produced by the latter as it very much sounds like his work. To that end, Glasper recently cited Nina as “one of the most important and influential artists ever.”

Mary J. Blige does “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” which she delivers as an R&B/jazz hybrid and it’s one of the best tracks on hand. But where I recall the original being something of an angry song, Blige is more passionate than livid with her vocals. Not that you can complain about that; this is one of the shiniest gems on the album.

“Young, Gifted & Black” is performed by Common and Lalah Hathaway. Common raps the verses of the protest song in the same way that Hill raps on “I’ve Got Life” and the result is infectious. If Nina was alive today, I should think that she’d appreciate these renditions. After all, you could argue that rap music *is* the protest music of today and Nina never stopped having strong feelings about politics, race issues, etc, even during her later years when she went back to singing her jazz piano classics instead of focusing on activism.

The only song here that I find too far removed from the original is Alice Smith’s nearly seven minute rendition of “I Put A Spell On You.” It’s a song that’s been covered many times, and by a wide variety of artists, but Smith’s rendition strips it of much of its emotion. There are times when she sings the words in a lashing out manner like Nina sang the original, but much of her version is too subtle and the arrangement of the music is rather unusual, almost making one feel like you’re listening to a lullaby at times. It’s hypnotic, yes, but it sounds like the musicians and Smith are performing two different songs during much of it. But, that’s just one minor blemish out of sixteen remarkable songs, so the album is still well worth your investment if you’re a Nina Simone fan or are thinking about becoming one. I hope that younger music listeners will be drawn by the star power here and end up listening to Nina’s originals after listening to this.

NINA REVISITED: A Tribute to Nina Simone Tracklisting:

01 My Mama Could Sing (Intro) – Lisa Simone

02 Feeling Good – Ms. Lauryn Hill

03 I’ve Got Life – Ms. Lauryn Hill

04 Ne Me Quitte Pas – Ms. Lauryn Hill

05 Baltimore – Jazmine Sullivan

06 Love Me Or Leave Me – GRACE

07 My Baby Just Cares For Me – Usher

08 Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood – Mary J. Blige

09 Sinnerman – Gregory Porter

10 We Are Young Gifted & Black – Common & Lalah Hathaway

11 I Put A Spell On You – Alice Smith

12 I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl – Lisa Simone

13 Black Is The Color Of My True Love’s Hair – Ms. Lauryn Hill

14 Wild Is The Wind – Ms. Lauryn Hill

15 African Mailman (Instrumental)

16 I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free – Nina Simone

revisited

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Written by

Paris365

An entertainment journalist for 20 years, Michael McCarthy was a columnist and contributing editor for the magazines Lollipop and LiveWire. He co-created and wrote for Cinezine, one of the '90's most popular movie E-zines. The only time he's not listening to music is when he's watching television shows and movies or reading, usually music magazines.

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