The word on this Nina Simone biopic has been so toxic for so long — it was filmed in 2012 but only released now — I was really hoping to find something good in it. No luck. It’s not that Simone, a legendary musician and civil-rights activist diagnosed with bipolar disorder, doesn’t deserve a movie of her own. The jazz singer, pianist and songwriter accumulated 15 Grammy nominations before her death in 2003 at the age of 70. And last year’s Oscar-nominated documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone?, got to the core of her talent and temperament. Of course, the doc had the real thing. Nina, on the other hand, is an imitation of Simone’s life that keeps hitting wrong notes.
The main bone of contention is the casting of Zoe Saldana (Star Trek, Avatar), whose light skin had to be darkened with makeup and her nose widened with prosthetics to approximate the look of Simone. It’s true that actors, from Marlon Brando (The Godfather) to Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady), have often altered their appearances for a role and won Oscars in the process. But Saldana’s transformation feels distracting instead of organic. And her age is a worse problem. Saldana was in her mid-30s playing Simone in a film largely set in the 1990s when Simone was in her 60s. Hard experience does not line Saldana’s face or put hellfire in her eyes as it did Simone’s.
In fairness, Saldana gives the role all she has, including a serviceable singing voice that cannot remotely match what made Simone such a thundering vocal original on such barnburners as “Feeling Good” and “Wild Is the Wind.” Would all problems have vanished if Mary J. Blige, who first showed interest in the role, had signed on to play the High Priestess of Soul? I doubt it. Not with this mess of a script. Writer-director Cynthia Mort, who claims to have been cut out of the editing process, has centered the film around Simone’s relationship with Clifton Henderson (David Oyelowo), a young nurse Simone meets in an L.A. psychiatric hospital. After he accompanies her to the South of France, Simone persuades Henderson to become her manager. No romance here, since Simone pounds him with a gay slur when he rejects her come-ons. Oyelowo, a stellar actor who played Martin Luther King in Selma, is constrained by a role that reduces him to staring in fear and frustration as Simone drinks and drugs her way through Europe before staging a comeback concert in New York’s Central Park.
Flashbacks hint at the racist scars left from her childhood in North Carolina, her switch from classical piano to jazz, her electrifying debut at New York’s Village Gate in 1965, her violent temper that fueled two turbulent marriages and charges for pulling a gun on a record executive, and her hunger for black power that resulted in the classic song, “Mississippi Goddamn.” Onscreen, Nina barely scratches the surface much less draws blood. For the essence of a legend, listen to the real Simone sing “I Put a Spell on You.” She sure as hell does. This movie emphatically does not.