Little more than a snazzy video lecture from Noam Chomsky, Requiem for the American Dream ultimately isn’t the best or most worthwhile kind of movie, especially if you’re already familiar with Chomsky’s work. In 75 minutes his ideas are (necessarily) simplified, although this does work as a very effective introduction to his thinking on American economic and social history. That said, his thinking is almost always brilliant and perceptive, and listening to him is always educational. A fine introduction, but certainly not essential.
Miss Simone belongs in that rare breed of artist, alongside Aretha, Ella, and Billie, who have such enduring influence they can simply be referred to by just their first name. This documentary, directed by Liz Garbus, is a fitting portrait of Nina’s power, music and her often difficult personal life. Indeed, whilst most documentaries of such major figures are hagiographic, valorising even their subjects’ trials and tribulations, What Happened Miss Simone? is unafraid of discussing its subject’s demons frankly and with comparatively little fanfare; it’s not the traditional romantic dichotomy of ‘suffering artist begets great art’ but more layered than that, where the personality exists to give greater context to the music without overshadowing it, allowing the viewer a different window into Nina Simone’s soul.
And what soul she had. If nothing else, Garbus’ film could have been little more than a collection of archival concert clips and it still would have been an electrifying watch. Going by the concert footage, Nina Simone onstage, even in later life when illness would take its toll, was that rarest of performers: the sort of person who could hold an audience rapt in awe and demand to be listened to. One scene, from 1976 in Montreux, shows her stopping mid-song to tell a fidgety audience member to sit down, refusing to continue until she has done so. Imagine what Nina would have done today with the plethora of mindless smartphone zombies at gigs who spend more time taking amateur shots of blur and light to instagram for likes than they do enjoying the moment.
But the film is not really about Nina’s music. It is about her life. Building the narrative largely out of archival interviews with Nina and the lucid, detailed recollections of her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, Garbus details at length her subject’s experiences; her early life as a black child in the segregated South, a prodigious pianist who took piano lessons from her white neighbours and was ostracised by both black and white communities, the former for engaging in something considered ‘white’ and the latter for the colour of her skin; her response to the civil rights movement, in particular her declared outspokenness (she declares herself as “not non-violent” and the film discusses her support for violent means of black liberation) which eventually cost her financially but gave her a cultural worth far beyond that of hits and gold records; Nina’s abuse at the hands of her husband; her move to Liberia in Africa and her own violence towards her daughter; her eventual comeback and her diagnosis as suffering from bipolar disorder.
Garbus maintains a strictly chronological line throughout, but her tackling of the tougher aspects of Nina’s life is handled with care and respect. Much of the discussion revolves around Nina’s importance as a civil rights icon but also her own demons, and how the two occasionally intersected or even collided.
Of what we are told, Nina Simone was strongly in favour of violence as a means of engendering political change and equality, a particularly relevant topic in these divisive, uncertain times where the election of Donald Trump and the horrendous epidemic of state violence wrought upon minorities in America (and across the world), suggests that the means of fighting oppression may well come into question once more.
The background and context that the film gives her means that, when she arrives at those views, we understand what might lead a person down that path, and even this is contextualised as part of a wider picture; the diagnosis of bipolar disorder later in her life suggests that part of her anger and rage, however justified, may have emanated from mental illness. The detail that Garbus gives to Nina’s role in the Civil Rights movement portrays an artist who was deeply involved with the discourse amongst the intellectuals in the movement, with its orators, artists, poets, playwrights, and thinkers, another element of an electrifying and crucial moment in the history of the US. Such a documentary is always going to be exciting on the surface, but that What Happened, Miss Simone? achieves such electrification is great testament to the excellent work Liz Garbus has done here. Highly recommended.
13th is the sort of film that shouldn’t shown in cinemas. It should be shown on Netflix. It shouldn’t be shown on TV. It should be public domain. It should be shown in classrooms across the United States, even across the Western world, where many of the same oppressive racial structures described therein exist albeit in differing forms. Ava DuVernay’s documentary is one of the most powerful works of filmmaking I have seen for a while. It puts forward an argument with such force, fire, and weight of physical, statistical evidence that it perversely becomes a thing of beauty; the sharp, clear lines of the debate as laid out by the film are a thing to behold.
The opening statement of the film’s argument is based around the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, which officially abolished slavery across the country. Except there was a loophole: one was only free if one was not a criminal. Cue one hundred years of lawmakers in the US doing everything in their power to criminalise (and therefore re-enslave) black people in the US. 13th goes from this point onwards through the early twentieth century with the release of D. W. Griffith’s influential and hugely racist film The Birth of a Nation, segregation, the Civil Rights Act, and then finally to the culture of mass incarceration and the war on drugs that has been one of the principle foci of US political culture since the 1970s, started by Nixon and exacerbated subsequently by Reagan and Clinton.
DuVernay deals very specifically with how new laws were written that effectively criminalised black communities in the US, bringing together an array of (mostly) eloquent talking heads, many of whom are professors, activists, and politicians deeply involved in the subject at hand. To my very pleasant surprise, even Newt Gringrich has some intelligent things to say on this issue, at least based on what appears in the film. There are a handful of dissenting voices, but their arguments fall down at the slightest of scrutiny, and its particularly fascinating to watch how DuVernay and her talking heads lay out the argument that capitalism, mass incarceration, and racism all go hand-in-hand like a country-wide feedback loop.
The detail in the film is such that there were many elements or sides to this argument that were left overlooked by the film, instead being only implied. A particularly interesting one was the fact that many of the changes that most brutally damaged black communities via the American justice system were politically-motivated, in the sense that Presidents, governors, senators, and congressmen enacted them specifically in the hunt for votes.
They found messages that seemed to work, playing on the general fears and anxieties of the public. The legislation that they then enacted, sometimes with good intentions, was poorly written and had far-reaching consequences that higher scrutiny would have stamped out. Science, research, expert advice, these seem to fall by the wayside in many democracies, as the fickle, simplistic, uneducated will of the ugly majority comes to the forefront (see: the unquestioned support for both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, Brexit, the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff in Brazil). 13th accidentally seems to suggest that the writhing mass of humanity is not yet ready for democracy, certainly not within a capitalist framework.
But that argument is for another film to make. 13th is an incredible work. Go watch it.
Tempting as it might be to make a documentary about Hunter S. Thompson exclusively about the man’s legendary substance-fuelled binges, it probably wouldn’t make for a very insightful film. Alex Gibney’s doc should be congratulated then for instead providing ample discussion on what made Thompson’s writing tick (something many docs on creative figures don’t really do about their subjects). Formally, there is the usual array of talking heads and archive interviews, but it’s particularly interesting to watch how Gibney charts Thompson’s late-career dive, as Thompson began to struggle with the overriding media image of him as a crazy gun-toting alcoholic rather than a writer; the act of being Hunter S. Thompson/Dr. Gonzo surpassing being Hunter S. Thompson. The film is overall a bit too effusive (it would have been nice to see some more probing into the man’s many contradictions), but as an introduction to what Hunter S. Thompson is about, this is a fine work.
The latest Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album, Skeleton Tree, was written in the aftermath of the death of Nick Cave’s son Arthur. Skeleton Tree is an astounding piece of work, a truly heartbreaking and painful listen, claustrophobic, scared, fearful. One More Time With Feeling is the documentary made to go along with the album, or more accurately, do the work of all the endless promo work and interviews of endless repeated questions from mindless hacks from endless hack-rags that purport to write about music. No one should have to repeat themselves in the background of tragedy, and Cave has wisely avoided such drudgery for his own sake.
There is a strange irony to the film. The last time we saw a film about Nick Cave, 20,000 Days on Earth (2014), directed by Ian Forsyth and Jane Pollard, we were not so much taken into Nick Cave’s world as into the world of Nick Cave’s persona; that fine line between the reality and inherent unreality of a persona. For all that we laud honesty and ‘authenticity’ in music, we secretly fall in love with persona, with mystery, with imagination, far more regularly. Johnny Cash cast such a thick spell upon so many for exactly that same reason, the legend of the Man in Black growing bigger than Johnny Cash the man. David Bowie had similar powers. The legend of Robert Johnson the man who sold his soul to the devil grows far stronger than the authenticity of Robert Johnson the black bluesman who toiled the roads and dives of the 1930s US South. It is a cruel twist of faith that one delving into the fictionality of performer should be followed immediately by an album in which said performer is at his most personally anguished and sad.
Nick Cave is too guarded a man to let us see him grieve too openly in One More Time With Feeling. Andrew Dominik is, I feel, not wily enough of a documentarian to truly understand how to approach this material either. He is a fine director, responsible for one of the best Westerns of the new millennium, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), itself with a magnificent soundtrack by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. But here is a rare example of a film somehow working in spite its director, and in spite of some questionable directorial decisions. Structurally, One More Time With Feeling works like this: we see parts of the album’s recording process, interspersed with occasional talking heads (usually Cave, but also his wife Susie and Ellis) musing on various aspects. There’s also a voiceover provided by Cave, commentating on events onscreen as they happen, often injecting humour into proceedings which might otherwise be oppressively gloomy. These are interjected with the songs from the album, each one played in sequence; music videos by another name.
Individually, they are fine music videos, with fluid camera work and some imaginative tracking shots. Yet, the music surely speaks for itself. Dominik frequently uses these overarching, fantastical camera movements to hold our attention, but they are not needed. The music and Nick Cave’s presence is enough. The simpler videos are the best—the stark stillness of ‘Jesus Alone’ is heartrending, but the constant bird’s eye floating of ‘Anthrocene’ is just distracting—and I wonder if this is in part due to the decision to shoot some of the film in 3D, with Dominik feeling he had to justify the inclusion with some unnecessarily showy filming techniques.
Additionally, Dominik’s presence in the interview sections is frustrating as well. Bizarrely, he seems insistent on breaking the fourth wall at times, as if to comment on 20,000 Days on Earth’s complex relationship with its artist and his persona by saying “hey look, I know there’s an element of artificiality to all this too!” Thankfully, this occurs only a handful of times. Dominik’s questions aren’t the most piercing, but his subjects are all interesting and insightful. Nick Cave speaking is always anyone’s time.
One More Time With Feeling is probably not a film for people who aren’t fans of Nick Cave, although people who aren’t fans of Nick Cave aren’t real people either. It’s not perfect. It has significant flaws. But it also contains the music of an artist who is relentlessly creative and who making some of the best music on Earth at the moment, despite the awful personal circumstances he is currently undergoing. There is one extra song included in the film that plays over the end credits. I won’t say what it is, but I will say it constitutes a full-on punch to the gut emotionally, rendering the film’s flaws ultimately rather miniscule.