Sunday, February 14, 2016

Oscar Documentaries with Abe: Amy and What Happened, Miss Simone?

Directed by Asif Kapadia
Released July 3, 2015

What Happened, Miss Simone?
Directed by Liz Garbus
Released June 24, 2015

It’s almost inevitable that, when the Oscar nominees for Best Documentary are unveiled each year, a few of the five films cited will have a good deal in common. Often, it’s the topic of war, genocide, or environmentalism that unites the choices. This year, it’s music, specifically two female icons who led very colorful and memorable lives. Their music made an impact, but the way in which they saw the world and chose to use their celebrity was just as powerful. These two documentaries offer informative, eye-opening portraits of two unforgettable singers.

These two stories start from a similar vantage point, showing the artists bringing down the house in different venues and the adoration they commanded from many with their stage presence and commitment to their work. Both films waste little time in getting to the root of what created these two women and defined them, and how they stood out from the pack. Obviously, Amy Winehouse’s career was considerably briefer and more recent that Nina Simone’s, but both have certainly been thrust back into the spotlight by these award-winning features.

These films shouldn’t necessarily be taken together since Amy and Miss Simone both have very divergent stories and entirely different experiences. Amy came up in a more current era, and her fame was defined by erratic behavior and intense drug addiction which ultimately led to her death. Nina Simone was a beacon of the civil rights movement, even pushing further than many of her colleagues, choosing her own path in life that included a move to Liberia to get away from the poisonous nature of America, precipitated by mental illness. Neither icon is alive today, and so the impressive amount of footage amassed of both must serve as their only testimony and defense of their particular behaviors.

Where both films take the step from informative to truly passionate and transformative is when they showcase their respective subjects performing. Amy’s love for music comes out when she has the opportunity to sing with a legend from a different genre. Nina’s enthusiasm comes through when she pours her heart and soul into her singing, utilizing lyrics that speak volumes and delivering them with gusto. Neither film is perfect or fully engaging, but both tell enlightening tales of influential artists who might have had the chance to do so much more had their careers not been cut short by factors out of their control.

Both: B

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