Deep Cuts: Nina Simone
Some reading music: listen to this week’s special mix below. (See the full track listing.)
On April 22, Cynthia Mort’s Nina Simone biopic starring Zoe Saldana in atrocious dark makeup, afro wig, prosthetic nose, and false teeth will be available to stream on Amazon for $14.99. It isn’t very reasonable or critically sound, I know, to judge a film based on its trailer or to dispute the authenticity of a so-called “biopic,” but Mort and Saldana’s vain defense that Nina Simone “deserves to be known” and that “her story needed to be told”* sounds like a delusional promotion.
Produced at the behest of the Nina Simone estate in response to the early rumors surrounding Nina’s production, Liz Garbus’ 2015 Netflix documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone?, was nominated for an Academy Award, while a second documentary, Jeff L. Lieberman’s The Amazing Nina Simone is about to be released (and will screen at Metrograph on Saturday with Lieberman and Simone’s brother, Sam Waymon, in attendance). In addition to the decades of radio play, steady record sales, and live performances across the globe, Nina Simone’s music has continued to play out in hundreds of film and television soundtracks since the early ’90s. Aside from the fact that the official description of the upcoming Nina relays a bogus story in which Simone’s caretaker guides her “on a courageous journey back to her music . . . and, eventually, herself”** what led Mort and Saldana to presume that Nina Simone, the legendary High Priestess of Soul, isn’t already known?
The “rediscovery” of Nina Simone, such as it was, is an active pastime that has been ongoing for over 40 years, evolving in time with a capricious audience. What Nina Simone referred to as her unexpected “second coming” of success began in 1987 when Ridley Scott included her 1958 recording of the jazz standard “My Baby Just Cares for Me” in a commercial for Chanel No. 5 perfume. Starring Bond girl Carole Bouquet, the incredibly popular advert transformed Simone’s quaint love song into a cinematic ode to the freedom afforded by obscene wealth. Scott’s montage opens with Bouquet kissing off an older male companion before she takes off in a sleek car for a windswept rendezvous with her pilot beau. The song’s originally sincere refrain, “My baby don’t care for cars, [clothes, shows, etc.] . . . My baby just cares for me” jingles coquettishly over Ridley’s montage, which celebrates romance and luxury assets in equal measure.
Nina Simone first recorded “My Baby Just Cares” as an up-tempo filler on her 1958 debut album, Little Girl Blue, which features a cover photo of the young Simone lounging plaintively on a Central Park bench. Her languid cover of the Broadway show tune “I Loves You Porgy” was the album’s runaway hit, and What Happened, Miss Simone? includes a memorable clip of her performing the song on Hugh Hefner’s short-lived Playboy’s Penthouse television program for an onstage audience of canoodling bachelors and bachelorettes. Nearly 30 years later, Scott’s upmarket Chanel commercial helped turn “My Baby Just Cares” into Simone’s bestselling single, demonstrating the cockroach-like resilience of that evergreen swank Playboy aesthetic. To capitalize on the song’s newfound success, Simone’s label hired Aardman Animation Studios (the creative team behind Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer and later, Wallace and Gromit) to produce a new music video for the song starring claymation jazz cats.
Six years later, Point of No Return, the 1993 American remake of La Femme Nikita (90) used a sampling of five Nina Simone songs to express the interior conflict of the murderous junkie-turned-assassin played by Bridget Fonda. As Simone explained in an exasperated contemporary interview with The New York Times to promote her final studio album (A Single Woman): “John Badham, the director, chose my songs as a healing thing for the girl, Bridget Fonda, and I had quite a creative hand in saying yes to the songs.” Particular to Badham’s remake, the troubled Maggie (code name: Nina) listens to Nina Simone records because they both remind her of her mother and strengthen her independence from the men in her life who all want to either kill or possess her. She intimidates her secret agent handler “Uncle” Bob, played by Gabriel Byrne, by woman-splaining Simone’s version of “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl” to him: “She’s saying, ‘Stick it in me twice a day and I’ll do anything for you,’” inciting the usually stoic Bob to cringe. At the end of the film, Maggie walks away from her competing suitors and leaves Uncle Bob with nothing but a farewell note, which his rival Dermot Mulroney preemptively tears to pieces. As a substitute for the torn letter, the love-lorn Bob makes a souvenir of Maggie’s Nina Simone at Town Hall LP.
The pop culture aftershock of the “My Baby Just Cares for Me” craze persisted into the early ’90s, especially in the U.K., where the Chanel No. 5 commercial first aired. Danny Boyle highlighted the song prominently in his debut feature, Shallow Grave (94), over a montage of the three lead characters cynically going about their daily business after they agree to keep mum about their dead roommate and his suitcase full of cash. Plenty of films that followed in later years also relied on a single Nina Simone song to bolster the narrative in important centerpiece or closing scenes. In I Love You Phillip Morris (09), Jim Carrey ecstatically yells out the film’s title to Ewan McGregor, the object of his affection, at the height of an extensive pursuit edited to Nina Simone’s cover of the Bee Gee’s “To Love Somebody.”
In Rebecca Miller’s The Ballad of Jack and Rose (05)—a musical film title if there ever was one—Simone’s version of “I Put a Spell on You,” which significantly adds the word “daddy” to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ lyrics, plays during a key scene and perfectly encapsulates Rose’s disturbingly intimate and territorial relationship with her father, Jack. And in Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset (04), Julie Delpy’s awkward impersonation of Nina Simone nudges the film towards its temporal conclusion as she mom-dances to “Just in Time” and tells Ethan Hawke again, this time in her unconvincing Nina-voice that he’s “gonna miss that plane.”
The most widely sampled Nina Simone track in film and television is her brilliant adaptation of the African American spiritual “Sinner Man,” re-titled by Simone as “Sinnerman.” John McTiernan first showcased the song in 1999, planting instrumental clues throughout his remake of The Thomas Crown Affair in anticipation of the film’s ultimate set piece: Pierce Brosnan’s elaborate bait-and-switch at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The Thomas Crown Affair was the first in a continuing line of films and television shows that use “Sinnerman” to score images of white men behaving badly, often during robbery or chase scenes involving characters like Thomas Crown; a wealthy man who commits crimes out of sheer boredom. Here the lyrical exhortation “Sinnerman, where you gonna run to?” no longer conveys the spiritual song’s fear of god but the literal, secular threat of arrest and imprisonment. A number of television shows, all of them hyping white bad boys whom we presumably love to hate regularly appropriate the song: recent examples include episodes of Sherlock, The Blacklist, Entourage, Lucifer and Vinyl, among others, and a promotional spot for Mad Men. Many of these scenes are typically shot and edited in a formalist, debatably macho style that could induce vertigo in susceptible viewers.
After “Sinnerman” made its dramatic debut in The Thomas Crown Affair, Felix da Housecat released his “Heavenly House Mix” in 2002, joining the ranks of Moby and Fatboy Slim, who also broke into film and television with tracks that layered spiritual vocal samples over pulsing house music. Over the course of a few years, da Housecat’s “Sinnerman” remix played at the end of the 2002 suspense film High Crimes, during a chase scene in the early wireless phone thriller Cellular (04), and in 2006, Michael Mann embedded the “Heavenly House Mix” in Miami Vice‘s opening club scene, following the Jay Z/Linkin Park collaboration, “Numb/Encore.”
The first time that I really dug into Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman” was when I went to see David Lynch’s Inland Empire (06) at the IFC Center downtown and witnessed the song play out for almost seven minutes over the extensive end credit sequence resembling a bizarre curtain call / dance party revival. Hardly a significant anecdote on its own, my experience watching Inland Empire will now join the countless testimonials on the internet (including YouTube comment shout-outs) that informally map out Nina Simone’s posthumous exposure to new listeners. Blog posts like Lesley Kinzel’s on XOJane, for example, opens with the author’s recollection of her first experience hearing “My Baby Just Cares for Me” during a scene in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty (96). Or this episode of the BBC Four series Secret Knowledge that fashions singer Laura Mvula’s personal exploration of Simone’s music into a thoughtful education on her life, music, and artistic influence.
Julie Dash’s short film Four Women (75), which is scheduled to screen at the Metrograph theater on Sunday, is the only film mentioned in this column that faithfully articulates the story contained in Nina Simone’s title song. A dance film starring and choreographed by Linda Young, Four Women prefigures Dash’s 1991 landmark Daughters of the Dust with certain stylistic techniques: dissolves, freeze-frames, and fluid camera movements that visually complement both Simone’s lyricism and Young’s choreography without favoring one creative medium over the other.
Comprised of four stanzas narrated by different black female characters of varying skin tones, Daphne A. Brooks eloquently described “Four Women,” one of Simone’s most powerful songs, as her “tale of black female exploitation and abjection handed down like an atavistic slur from one generation to the next.”*** At the height of the recent upset over Zoe Saldana’s pitiful Nina makeup, Simone’s fans argued that her distillation of the four women (Aunt Sarah, Saffronia, Sweet Thing and Peaches) into reductive archetypes according to skin tone spoke directly to Simone’s personal struggle against colorism and the compounded exclusion she often faced as a dark skinned black woman. I would also suggest that “Four Women” (the song and the film) offer a depiction of both physical and mental anguish that confronts the dismissive view of Simone and other black women of all shades as unjustifiably angry or “crazy.” When Peaches, the last of the four women and the character with whom Simone identified the most, voices lines like “I’ll kill the first mother I see / My life has been rough,” Simone is expressing an aspect of her identity that is too often portrayed as a sign of mental instability, when in fact her anger and frustration were spurred in part by the range of injustices that have plagued black American women for centuries.
A largely punitive fascination with Nina Simone’s various breakdowns and outbursts have dominated every telling of Simone’s life story, including the upcoming Nina, which centers on the latter turbulent years of her life, and even Garbus’s highly regarded documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone?, which controversially allowed Simone’s abusive ex-husband the time and space to comment on her mood swings. All biopics and documentaries inevitably home in on their subject’s imperfections, but the misplaced and frequently sanitized appearance of Nina Simone’s music on soundtracks is even less likely to advance the nuances of her legendary story. Cross-referencing musical discoveries on the internet may be a flawed enterprise but it is nonetheless the most accessible mode of research for curious movie and television viewers who know nothing of what they hear. How else are they to know that the remixed song playing over that yogurt commercial is also one of the most inspiring and renowned anthems of black pride?
1. Cynthia Mort: “The bottom line is this: Nina Simone deserves to be known.” / Zoe Saldana: “The Nina Simone story needed to be told.”
2. RLJ Entertainment circulated the official synopsis of Nina at the time of the film’s poster release and can be read in its entirety here.
Vanessa Martinez also wrote a very revealing synopsis of the Nina screenplay for Shadow and Act in 2012 that contains a minor error: Simone’s 1992 autobiography I Put a Spell on You was published before she met her controversial caretaker-turned-manager Clifton Henderson. According to Simone’s daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, Cynthia Mort came to the project “through the back door” by ceasing communication with Kelly and purchasing the rights to Henderson’s life story, so it is likely that the flashback scenes in the film were inspired by Simone’s recounting of her life story that was published in her autobiography.
3. “Afro-sonic Feminist Practice: Nina Simone and Adrienne Kennedy in High Fidelity” by Daphne A. Brooks, published in Black Performance Theory (Eds. Thomas F. DeFrantz and Anita Gonzalez) Duke University Press, 2014.
1. Hugh Hefner TV Intro
2. “The Backlash Blues”
3. French TV Intro
4. “To Love Somebody”
5. “Gin House Blues”
6. “Ain’t Got No, I Got Life”
7. Tim Graham “Wired” TV Clip
8. “My Baby Just Cares for Me”
9. “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl”
10. Point of No Return: “Stick it in me twice a day”
11. “I Put a Spell on You”
12. Point of No Return: “Good music”
13. “Feeling Good”
14. TV Interview Clip
15. “To Be Young Gifted and Black”
16. TV Interview Clip
17. “Four Women”
18. TV Interview Clip
20. Point of No Return: “Do you like Nina?”
Margaret Barton-Fumo is the editor of a forthcoming book on Paul Verhoeven and a longtime contributor to FILM COMMENT.