According to the remarkable documentary “What Happened, Miss Simone?” we have Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music to thank for jazz vocalist and songwriter Nina Simone’s blazing career. Trained from early childhood as a classical pianist, the then Eunice Waymon of Tryon, North Carolina, was in New York with a one-year scholarship to Juilliard when, in 1951, she applied for admission to Philadelphia’s storied tuition-free conservatory. She was rejected.
Liz Garbus’ new film, released last month by Netflix, more than implies that Simone was turned down not because her audition wasn’t up to snuff but because she was black. A 2010 biography disputes this assertion, but in any event, the musician believed it to be true, fueling her anger over the racism she grew up with. (Shortly before her death in 2003, Curtis awarded Simone an honorary degree — an acknowledgment of past wrongdoing, or an honor accorded a great talent?)
To support herself, she headed to Atlantic City, landing a gig at the Midtown Bar & Grill on Pacific Avenue, under the name “Nina Simone.” At first, she just played instrumentals, but the owner told her that if she wanted to keep her $90 per week job, she needed to sing. The rest is history — a history very much tied to the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
Simone’s fiery anthem “Mississippi Goddam,” written in the aftermath of the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four black children, was a poignant cry of anguish and alarm. After the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, Simone’s views on race relations became increasingly radical. In one concert performance in the Netflix film, the singer with the rich, husky voice advocates taking up arms.
“What Happened, Miss Simone?” is just one of a number of amazingly strong documentaries available right now on theater screens, home screens, and iPhone screens — if you must. When a swarm of top-quality nonfiction films tumble out one after the other, as they are, there’s the inevitable journalistic reflex to hail this as a new golden age of docs. I won’t go that far, but it is a doc moment, to be sure.
Not quite on the same tier as Garbus’ revelatory Simone portrait, another Netflix release, “Tig,” about standup comedian Tig Notaro, nonetheless is riveting. Directed by Kristina Goolsby and Ashley York, and deploying a lot — a lot — of iPhone video shot by Notaro and friends and family, “Tig” chronicles the life-changing events that the L.A.-based deadpan comic faced in 2012. After just recovering from a horrific intestinal-bacteria malady, Notaro was diagnosed with breast cancer.
At one of her regular comedy venues, Notaro came on stage and did an entire set about her cancer. Intensely personal, painful and — yes — funny, the act or tweets documenting her act went viral. Louis CK hailed Notaro’s courage and comedy genius and went on to release an audio recording of the show on his label, Pig Newton. The album became a huge seller and won Notaro a Grammy nomination.
At times, the film plays like a 24/7 selfie, with Notaro’s courting Stephanie Allynne, an actress she worked with while filming “In a World ….” The comedian, who underwent a double mastectomy, desperately wants to have a child, but she’s unable to carry the baby herself, so she interviews a possible surrogate and her husband in Seattle, both of whom are Notaro fans. It’s a strange relationship, to say the least.
David Thorpe’s documentary “Do I Sound Gay?” offers another deeply personal take on the gay experience. A journalist and filmmaker, Thorpe, who jokingly describes his voice as sounding “like a very small man,” sets out to discover why he and many of his friends use intonations, inflections and registers that immediately identify them — or misidentify them — as gay. The film offers more than just a new angle on linguistics; it’s a provocative look into cultural perceptions, self-perceptions and sexual identity.
“Cartel Land,” from Matthew Heineman, is a boots-on-the-ground doc about violence and vigilantism on the U.S.-Mexico border. The filmmaker embeds himself with Auto defensas, a band of citizens in the Mexican state of Michoacan, who have taken up arms against the powerful Knights Templar drug cartel. In Arizona, he tags along with Tim “Nailer” Foley, a leathery vet with a defiant worldview, who leads Arizona Border Recon, a paramilitary outfit out to thwart the illegal entry of people, and drugs, from the south.
“The Wolfpack” brings the viewer inside a drab apartment in a public-housing tower on Manhattan’s Lower East Side — an apartment the six brothers in Crystal Moselle’s startling film have barely ever left. Home-schooled, living under the despotic hand of their Peruvian immigrant father, the Angulo boys would be allowed outside three or four times per year. Some years, they didn’t go out at all.
What they were allowed to do was watch movies — and they watched and rewatched them, to the point where they could and would re-enact whole scenes from “The Dark Knight” and from “Reservoir Dogs.” The film is a vivid family portrait and a commentary on how pop culture and the popular arts — particularly film — impact and influence our lives. And how they don’t.
In “Point and Shoot,” released in theaters last year and slated to air next month on PBS’ documentary series “POV,” Marshall Curry trains his camera on Matthew VanDyke, a sheltered Baltimorean, who decides to go on a “crash course in manhood,” riding a motorcycle across Africa and the Middle East and winding up fighting alongside rebel forces in the Libyan revolt.
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