A lot of the difficulty of writing about Sundance is trying to make it interesting for people who may not see any of these movies, either because they never get significant distribution or because oh man, yeah, you heard it was really good but you’re waiting for it to go on VOD, oh wait, it’s already on VOD? Oh cool, good to know, yeah, you’ll definitely check it out one of these days. So it’s sort of nice that the first film that I and many people saw at Sundance this year will soon be available to stream through your personal cinema-killing device on Netflix. While I overheard some mild grumbles about this — how unspecial and nonexclusive! — it’s a big cred win for Netflix, which also premiered the Mitt Romney campaign doc Mitt last year (which is still very much worth checking out).
What Happened, Miss Simone? is director Liz Garbus’ tribute to the legendary Nina Simone, told primarily through archival footage and interviews with a handful of those closest to her. The footage is the real treat and reason to watch, and Garbus knows when to hang back and let a performance play itself out. There’s a particularly great, mind-blowing clip of Simone playing on Playboy’s Penthouse with an introduction from a very young Hugh Hefner. Watching Simone play her dreamlike rendition of “I Loves You Porgy” for a room full of skinny blonde Playboy hopefuls is one of those images that just sticks with you. It feels alien and archaic, but also like it could have happened yesterday.
Interviews with her longtime guitarist Al Shackman are the most candid and revealing, but the extremely exclusive circle of sources feels a little constraining by the second half. (Garbus’ primary interviews are Shackman, Simone’s daughter Lisa Simone Kelly, and her ex-husband and former manager Andrew Stroud, with whom she had a frequently toxic, chaotic relationship.) Still, that’s probably preferable to the "10 bespectacled music journalists tell you why this is important" pattern many musical documentaries fall into. Thankfully, for the most part Garbus lets Simone tell her story in her own words and music.
The screening was in the Eccles Theatre, which is pretty much a school auditorium. (This prompted me to wonder where they ship all the children of Park City while the Hollywood bigwigs invade their schools and libraries. Is there some kind of exchange program? Do they all just move into Harvey Weinstein’s house?) After the lights came up we were treated to a surprise performance by John Legend, who played a few of Nina’s songs for us, including "Lilac Wine" and her version of "Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood." The lights were left on in the theater, lending it a kind of school assembly / talent show vibe. John Legend has a beautiful voice of an angel, but almost two hours with the endlessly complicated, multidimensional voice of Miss Simone was kind of a hard act to follow. So I used the opportunity to look at Twitter and was on the receiving end of some serious mad-dogging from local moms / Legendistas.
Afterwards, I headed back to the center of town, got denied at my first Sundance Party (oooh, it hurts so good!), and, in my literal exile on Main Street, spent the next hour wandering up and down, taking in the local color on the still sparsely populated main drag. Let me tell you, all of your favorite brands have already arrived at Sundance: Acura! YouTube! Chase Sapphire Preferred! Stella Artois! It was hard to maintain my journalistic integrity after basking in the glow of all these powerful influencers, but I’m going to try: here are the five best things I saw and heard on Main Street in Park City on a Thursday night when pretty much nobody is out on Main Street.
My brain always fails to actually remember what they consider themselves more of, but I’m going to assume, nine times out of ten, it’s "ceramicist."