At a certain level, these two subjects couldn’t be more different (one is English, the other from the States; one died at an early age, the other lived a long life) but there’s plenty too that unites them. They both came from relatively unfavoured backgrounds to pursue well-regarded careers as jazz vocalists (though whereas Amy Winehouse moved away from that idiom somewhat, Nina Simone moved into it after early training in classical piano), and both had undoubtedly turbulent lives.
Because Liz Garbus’s documentary is produced by (and largely revolves around testimony from) Simone’s daughter Lisa, we get to hear a lot about her family life, and her marriage to an abusive husband who helped to promote her career, but whose presence terrified her. Likewise, Asid Kapadia’s film about Winehouse paints a vivid portrait of the men around her (including her father Mitch, her husband Blake, and her early manager Nick) and about the different ways in which they too tried to control and shape her life. Even the relatively benign presences of Nick or her bodyguard late in life, while supportive of her talents, still use the language of control and suggest that she needed someone to dictate what she should do, to avoid the drugs and the alcohol which in conjunction with her eating disorders and the exploitativeness of the tabloid press (and the public’s demand for stories about her), weakened her body and led to her early demise. What the film singularly demonstrates is that whatever the truth of these men’s assessment, no one was willing to step in decisively to try and help her over her demons or through the maelstrom of the media (in which the audience sits complicit). I may never have been a huge fan of Winehouse during her lifetime, but watching Amy just makes me sad once again at her life and the unrealised potential of her talents (though what she did release remains wonderful). Simone, by contrast, had plenty of time to develop as a singer, but also as a person who was deeply embedded with the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, and who later in life, following the split from her husband, never fully allowed her voice and talents to be controlled by anyone but her. Perhaps this is how Winehouse’s life might have panned out, but that would be idle speculation.
What can be said is that the two documentaries take a markedly different stylistic approach to their subjects. Whereas Garbus opts for the safety of a compilation of modern talking heads, recorded interviews with Simone, and archival footage, Kapadia instead constructs his image track entirely from archival sources, particularly home videos and behind-the-scenes footage which seem revealing of Amy’s headspace at any given time. This is overlaid with audio interviews with various people who were close to her, but for all this, Kapadia never gives us the opportunity to be distracted from the absent presence at the heart of his film, her image or her voice. Ultimately both films, in their different ways, honour most of all the strong women at their heart, and the remarkable music each created.
Director Asif Kapadia; Length 128 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Monday 6 July 2015.
What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015)
Director Liz Garbus; Cinematographer Igor Martinovic; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Saturday 11 July 2015.