Nina Simone: Love Sorceress (1998)
Note: Some spoilers
It's hard to imagine a more passive/aggressive performer than Nina Simone. Forget punk posturing, forget Jim Morrison's poetic superiority complex, Simone is the real thing, a living breathing icon with a voice of enormous power and skilled hands that play the piano with the most amazing combination of ease and confidence. In "Love Sorceress," we actually get to see her having what seems like a nervous breakdown on stage. Later we realize she is just tripping. Literally.
Simone performs at the Earshot Jazz Festival in Paris in 1976 in this short video (it runs about 75 minutes - but what a fucking amazing 75 minutes it is). She immediately challenges the audience when arriving on stage by standing by her piano is a frozen pose that leads us to wonder if she truly is ever going to break free from it and perform. In this single introductory moment, we find Simone as much performance artist as performer and she immediately challenges our notions of concert, performance, performer, icon, audience, fan, and adulation. Simone begins by begging the audience to notice her and look at her then, within seconds, her pose changes although she herself does not move and the attitude becomes one of derision and disdain. Simone is taunting the audience, chiding them for their ignorance and phoniness. The audience stops applauding and Simone's pose remains rigid, questioning if the group's initial applause were sincere at all. It is an amazing moment that is as vibrant and breathtaking on video as it must have been live.
One also has a moment to contemplate the real facade of an icon that is, in actuality, rarely seen. I've seen a few pictures of Simone and even saw her live in 2002, but I've never really seen her live on video before from her most prolific era. Her facade is amazing. Gaunt, slender and dark, she also almost seems to be a man posing as a woman. Her image is so strong and her sexual prowess so evident that in just a single look one cannot help but question her gender and her facade. The image is riveting. Captivating.
Simone begins by playing "Little Girl Blue." She seems shaky discombobulated, nervous. The song is a horrible rendition of one of her most amazing works. Her timing is all off. Her vocals ramble and she can't find the right words or the right notes. We are disappointed. We wonder what kind of concert we are going to see here.
But just as amazingly, Simone immediately comes back with a perfectly compelling rendition of "Backlash Blues" on which she doesn't miss a beat. Joined here by a drummer, who remains for the rest of the concert, Simone finds her beat by the use of this percussionist who seems to anticipate and match her every move. The beat never wavers and Simone delivers a string of songs that are amazing to see and hear.
In the middle of this comes one of the most amazing and emotional moments I've ever seen a performer undergo in a live setting. Simone slips into Morris Albert's "Feelings," one of the most sappy, syrupy and fluffy songs of the 70's, a song that has come to personify the cheesiness of the era's wimpy pop songs. Simone sings it here with such an emotional sincerity that it seems as if she is tearing her heart out. Never has this song been more real nor more emotional. Simone takes pop fluff and turns it into one of the most amazing and poignant live moments ever to be captured on film or video. It will leave you in tears.
I saw Simone in 2002 in Austin when she was an old, senile woman. She only did four dates in the USA that year (she lived out her years after the turbulent 60's in France where she was regarded as a genuine artist) and died soon after but even in the short performance, even with her older age and wandering mind in obvious evidence, she still put on an amazing show. She did the Beatles' song "Here Comes the Sun" and when she sang, "It's all right..." you truly believed it was going to be all right. One sighed with happiness to be informed that all was truly going to be okay, such was her command of her voice, the song and the audience.
Watching Simone interact with the audience here is as amazing as seeing her play piano and sing. She gets up between nearly every song and rambles. She even looks for David Bowie in the audience and tells everyone she is good friends with him. She talks about her recent trips to Africa. She talks about her disdain for jazz festivals and their audiences. She talks about her then recent move to France. She confesses, chides, loves, laughs, entertains, enraptures and amazes the audience with her banter as easily as she does with her music. It is an amazing performance and one that makes one curious as to how unique each one of Simone's performances must have been. Could there be more filed performances of her live out there somewhere?
The segment ends on an odd and yet still interesting note. After a long bit of head-scratching banter where Simone admits she's "half-high" and rambles on and on about this and that, she eventually calls a young percussionist up from the audience (an awkward edit here leads us to believe that it took a long time to find him and get him up there) and as the boy and Simone's percussionist play, she oscillates between doing nothing and dancing native from Africa. Or at least her interpretation of them. It is odd and yet beautiful.
Released in 1998 in France and now being shown more and more, this concert video is sadly augmented with some dumb footage shot from the inside of a car or taxicab as it travels through Paris. Not only is it unnecessary but, sadly, it is obviously not period footage as the shot from the inside of car reveals that the vehicle couldn't possibly have existed in 1976. The radio has a digital LED clock.
Luckily, Simone's performance is timeless. As relevant now as it was in 1976. As it was in 1998.
I first discovered Simone when Sandra Bernhart covered her song "Four Women" in her film "Without You, I'm Nothing."
The official website for the singer is http://www.ninasimone.com