Director: Cynthia Mort
The film, shot four years ago and sitting on the shelf all this time, had to weather a storm of bad publicity around the choice of Zoe Saldana, thin-nosed, light-skinned and in her 30s – she looks, mostly like she turned up to audition for an Erykah Badu biopic – even after the makeover. But the prosthetic nose (widened) and darker make-up is the least of Saldana and the film’s worries.
One of the singular talents of 20th Century music is here reduced to a shambolic parody in what feels, mostly, like an over-long SNL skit that plays without laughs but wants to be a commentary on the failings of the biopic form.
The aim seems to be to a fallen talent – drunk, unsure, broke and broken philosophically, financially and physically – aiming for the late-career comeback. So the action is almost entirely set post-1995. This ignores almost anything interesting about Simone’s life and career and casts her as washed-up, rude and angry. That would almost be fine if we had any insight into where the ill-temper and then flat-out rage comes from. But no. No chance. Just a few flashbacks, lasting just seconds at a time, to remind us it was once the 1960s.
David Oyelowo, a patient and talented actor, here has to shrug and shake his head as the nurse who becomes manager/wrangler. He spends most of the film wishing he was not there, reacting to being yelled at by Saldana who looks exactly 37 and only ever 37 despite portraying someone in their 60s.
Writer/director Cynthia Mort – known for TV credits mostly (Roseanne) – misunderstands her subject on such a brutal level that the only justification would be finding out that her name is being borrowed because Alan Smithee had simply gone fishing, or as a nom-de-plume for what is in fact Tommy Wiseau’s follow-up to The Room.
Saldana puts on an affected accent in some of the film’s flashbacks, but at other times she forgets. She has a pleasant singing voice – but sounds nothing like Simone. Not even close. And in ignoring the physical and spiritual abuse of (and by) Simone, the issues of race, gender and politics and the soul and heart of the music we never get close to understanding the anger – the key to getting close to understanding Simone.
This would be enough of a crime if it was a well-intentioned stab in – or at – the dark. But with a recent documentary, a wealth of material available, including Simone’s own writings, all of that incredible music and friends and family members still around to tell their sides of the tale it is simply unfathomable, unforgiveable.
When Mike Epps appears, two thirds of the way through, portraying Richard Pryor via a phone-call it feels like a scene stitched in from the DVD extras – the context forgotten, the relevance lost. There’s a heavy-handed attempt to line-up icons in their autumn years and Pryor’s Multiple Sclerosis diagnosis means he can no longer perform – so this is some motivation for Simone to get back on the piano stool and up on the stage. But, yeah, it’s still fucking ludicrous.
The film is laughably bad – right down to a breezy jazz score that went far better when it was attached to scenes of Nicolas Cage buying too much booze in Leaving Las Vegas.
Walk The Line and Ray are made to feel like final words on Johnny Cash and Ray Charles respectively when reconsidered after watching this atrocity. Impeachable, lacking in anything resembling sincerity, perception or even (misguided) fan-appreciation, Nina feels like its script was knocked up after reading the liner notes to one of the 20 Greatest Hits-styled compilations featuring My Baby Just Cares For Me.