The death knell for Cynthia Mort‘s debut feature didn’t come with all the initial controversy in 2012 when it was announced that Zoe Saldana was attached to play Nina Simone. It wasn’t even when the backlash reached a fever pitch over the last few months when the trailer was released. Instead, the worst moment for “Nina” is the first time the audience hears Saldana sing in the film. Ironically, it’s the classic “Feeling Good” that kills any hope that the biopic would transcend its troubled production and bad press. We’re only a few minutes into the film, and it becomes clear exactly how embarrassing “Nina” is for everyone involved. You’d feel pity for the filmmakers and stars if you weren’t the one being subjected to its problems for the next 85 minutes.
“Nina” jumps around the singer’s life, beginning with her performance as a child as a classical pianist in North Carolina in 1946. From there, it moves back and forth throughout her career, leaping between decades and continents. We see extended moments from an interview with a French journalist (Michael Vartan) and brief interludes from various points in Simone’s life, but most of the film focuses on her relationship in the ‘90s with her assistant and manager Clifton Henderson (David Oyelowo in a thankless role). After she meets him while she’s in a California hospital, she convinces Clifton to come back to France with her. There he tries to help the troubled singer survive, despite her self-destructive tendencies.
Saldana is a perfectly capable actress elsewhere, but she’s miscast here on every level. There’s been controversy around her casting and how it relates to Simone herself in terms of race, color and body type, and none of that is incorrect. Beyond the cultural issues in casting a fairer, smaller actress, Saldana is also far too young for the title role. Though there are brief scenes in the ‘60s and ‘70s, most of “Nina” is set in the ‘90s, when Simone was in her 60s. When the movie was shot, Saldana was in her mid-30s. On top of the problematic makeup used to darken Saldana’s skin and the prosthetics to broaden her nose, the age makeup never really works either. It’s not just that she doesn’t look old; at best, she looks like the Bible Walk Museum wax figure version of the chanteuse.
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However, the issues go beyond her physical appearance. With the exception of a few flickering moments where there’s a shadow of Simone present in the performance, Saldana never inhabits the singer fully. Playing a real person whose image and voice are easily accessible to the audience is always a challenge, but it’s particularly problematic with Simone. Whether it’s her recordings or last year’s Oscar-nominated doc “What Happened, Miss Simone?” anyone with casual interest can observe the woman as she was. Saldana not only doesn’t approximate her well, but she fails to capture any of the spirit that made Simone such an enduring figure. Her speaking voice and cadence never sound like Simone’s, to say nothing of her singing.
While Saldana would probably advance far on “The Voice” in another life, choosing to use the actress’ own singing in place of Simone’s is perhaps the movie’s worst crime. Saldana’s voice is pretty, but there’s none of the richness or emotion that people associate with Simone’s work. The few viewers unfamiliar with Simone will see “Nina,” and leave it wondering what all the fuss was about regarding her talent and impact.
The script from director Mort chooses an odd moment from Simone’s life to center upon. She’s fallen out with the public, but there’s little explanation into what happened or why, not to mention that it skips over her work as a civil rights activist. This approach might work best for Simone fans who already know the earlier parts of her story well, except that they’ll be so offended by every other aspect of the film that they’re unlikely to show any mercy with this approach.
With all of its time-jumping, “Nina” may seem like it is going for an impressionistic view of Simone, but it doesn’t achieve that. There’s little art or style in the film, and each scene is presented as a straightforward attempt to recreate the singer’s life. It’s sincere to the point of being fully unaware of how it misses the mark. An insult to the legacy of the High Priestess of Soul, those looking for a richer exploration of the woman, artist, activist and legend, are best served elsewhere. [D]