Probably the most enervated music biopic I’ve ever seen. Nina Simone, the dark-skinned high priestess of soul, has been portrayed by light-skinned African-American Zoe Saldana in Nina. There were times I thought the blackface was done by spray paint, but the most vexing aspect of it is watching the shade of tint change from darker to lighter scene to scene and then back to back. Lisa Simone Kelly, the real life daughter not shown in this movie, said that her mom once wanted Whoopi Goldberg to play her if there was ever a movie. Oh, how Whoopi could have given this movie at least a chance had she ever been given an offer! What this movie needed was a joyful dabble of some whoop-whoop!
We’re left with the stale crumbs of Simone’s late life where she was often self-drugged, drunk, ragged and belligerent. Other movies might have attempted to go after the flamboyance and irreverence of the character. Saldana’s approach is to go after a “Mommie Dearest” method, where screaming, lashing out, blows up happen almost scene to scene. In 1981, Faye Dunaway was goaded into going way over-the-top with a blustery, saliva-spewing performance in a biopic on Joan Crawford. Saldana nearly goes as far. Her first scenes are at a Los Angeles psychiatric hospital in 1988 so we get to see her immediately at full blown nuts.
In a ridiculously underwritten role, David Oyelowo is introduced as her nurse Clifton Henderson who leaves the States to join Simone on her mad travails in Paris, and goes around the movie chagrined as the default acting choice. Simone anoints Henderson as her new manager, even though there’s not a scene that supports the idea that he would know how to make a booking for her.
What’s brain-splat about Oyelowo’s performance is how snoozy it made me to make it through any scene where he’s by himself. I had to massage my scalp to try to nudge myself awake, and I often considered a sledgehammer on myself.
In that sense, I was at least wide awake whenever Saldana’s Simone goes into one of her tantrums. Which are many. There are also far too many interior scenes, in gloomy houses and hotel rooms. There’s a lot of history to the real Nina Simone, a lot of adversity she overcame, and a lot of influence in raising racial consciousness on a global level. Not much is shown in this disgrace of a movie, and little is talked about. Instead, the movie makes a big deal (it’s like the entire third act) that to rebound from the self-abuse Simone had to put on a free concert in New York’s Central Park as her redemption – although it has already been noted by many other film critics and historians, that that never happened. Writer-director Cynthia Mort simply wanted to adhere to storytelling formula by concocting a rise from the ashes type script. Did I also mention that “Nina” has continuity issues that go beyond just bad make-up?
Everything you’ve heard about “Nina” is true. It really is one of the worst movies ever made. It is not a fun bad. It really plunks a spell of anxiousness upon you watching it, the kind that feels like, “I can’t wait until this movie is over.” Movie stars are prideful people who are often too full of themselves to admit that a well-intentioned project turned into an atrocity. But I am waiting for the day where Oyelowo, who is actually very talented (see “Selma”) at must have been dumbstruck by the direction he was given, says in an interview that “Nina” sucked.
90 Minutes. Not Rated.
MUSIC BIOPIC / BAD MOVIES WE HATE / SATURDAY NIGHT SLUMBER
Film Cousins: “Lady Sings the Blues” (1972); “Mommie Dearest” (1981); “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” (1993); “Get On Up” (2013).