Jeff Lieberman with Sam Waymon, brother of Nina Simone and longtime band member. (photo from Re-Emerging Films)
It started as an accident,” said Vancouver-born, New York-based filmmaker Jeff Lieberman, describing the evolution of his second documentary film, The Amazing Nina Simone. The documentary has its Canadian première in Vancouver on June 16.
Speaking to the Independent from Fire Island, N.Y., Lieberman said he is a longtime aficionado of this famed American jazz singer, pianist, songwriter and civil rights activist, who passed away in 2003. He grew up listening to Nina Simone’s music and the idea of making a film about her had “always been rolling around in the back of my head, but I never really was quite sure that I could do it or was the right person to do it.”
He continued, “The bigger issue was that I didn’t really know or necessarily understand Nina Simone for a long time and it was only within the last five to eight years that I read both her autobiography and a detailed biography of Nina that helped me understand who she was – but also the amazing backstory of her classical music upbringing, her involvement in civil rights – and realize that there was a much bigger story to tell.”
The impetus for Lieberman to begin work on this passion project arose out of a visit to the southern United States a few years ago. Following a screening of his first documentary film, Re-Emerging: The Jews of Nigeria (which screened at the now-defunct Ridge Theatre in Vancouver in 2012), in Charleston, S.C., Lieberman traveled to Simone’s birth city of Tryon, N.C. He had tracked down a local Simone enthusiast committed to preserving the singer’s memory. He not only guided Lieberman to notable landmarks, such as Simone’s childhood home and a bronze sculpture, but also “basically set up all the interviews for me with people who grew up with Nina. And this was before I had committed to working on the project!”
But Lieberman did commit. He threw himself wholeheartedly into a labor of love, “focusing almost exclusively on [the film] over the last year and a half to two years,” he said.
Lieberman conducted more than 80 interviews, 50 of which are included in the film. “I spent a lot of time hunting people down all over the world and often I was fortunate and interviewed them; other times people had long passed,” he recalled. He described the process as “a lot of work, but it was fun work!”
Lieberman’s “fun work,” or research, led to the discovery that “so many different people had different visions of [Nina]. She wasn’t an easy person to sum up … she was so many different things to so many different people. She was soft and docile to some people, fiery and angry to other people, and she was brilliant to some, and crazy to others.”
He added, “Another thing that was fascinating to me was her struggle with civil rights, in terms of how much time and energy and personal safety to devote to the cause. She seemed quite torn in terms of really wanting to contribute to the movement, but … it was tough for her to reconcile where to be and where she was most effective.”
Simone’s impressive musical achievements are well known. Her music transcends genre, encompassing classical, jazz, gospel, pop, folk and spiritual sounds. The legendary musician recorded more than 25 albums; popular, soulful versions of “I Put a Spell on You” and “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” and a 1959 Top 20 hit with “I Loves You, Porgy” from George Gershwin’s 1935 opera Porgy and Bess. Moreover, her politically charged song, “Mississippi Goddam,” was revolutionary. Simone wrote and performed the piece in front of a mainly white audience at Carnegie Hall in 1964 – at the height of the struggle for civil rights in America.
Lieberman identifies “Mississippi Goddam” as one of his favorite Simone songs because she “took the entire United States of America to task on what was going on with segregation and racial injustice and, by name, she called out states and governors and groups of people for not doing enough.” However, he is quick to point out that he has many favorites because “there’s a whole other aspect of Nina Simone which is not controversial or as in your face – it’s beautiful love songs and ballads and haunting, lonely songs. And, lastly, she has songs that are stories that paint pictures of different characters, almost like a play.”
On hand at the Vancouver screening to speak from personal experience about Simone’s musical talent will be local jazz musician and Juno nominee Henry Young. Young met Simone during her three-week stint in 1968 performing at Vancouver’s old Marco Polo Supper Club, the first Chinese smorgasbord restaurant and nightclub in Vancouver’s Chinatown, which hosted the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Tommy Chong (of Cheech and Chong fame) and Frank Sinatra, Jr.
Young successfully convinced Simone that he should join her band as guitarist. He reunited with her in New York two months later, only days before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated. Three days following that historic turning point, Young took the stage with Simone at the Westbury Festival and paid tribute to the civil rights hero with a song written to commemorate the fallen leader.
Young toured with Simone for a few years, performing across Europe and for the King of Morocco. Ultimately, he decided to return home to Vancouver. He will join Lieberman in a post-film Q & A session on June 16 and will perform a musical tribute to Simone with the Henry Young Quartet, featuring Vancouver vocalist Candus Churchill.
Since the release of The Amazing Nina Simone just under a year ago, the film has screened in more than 75 different venues: in France, Denmark, the Netherlands and across the United States in Chicago, Houston, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Berkeley and Philadelphia. Lieberman recalled a notable screening that occurred in Harlem: a free, outdoor, public screening that also included a performance by Nina’s musician brother, Sam Waymon, and a Nina Simone Dance Party.
Lieberman said there are upcoming screenings of the film in Korea and New Zealand, but he is particularly excited for the Canadian première of his latest film in his hometown. He credits his Jewish upbringing in Vancouver as inspiration for much of his work, commenting that it “has always given me a value of social justice and wanting to try and do something meaningful and impactful with my life.”
He said that his previous film “and this one both touch on diversity and racism, trying to create a more just world, and breaking down barriers to see people for who they really are. I think those are Jewish values that come right from the Torah, but also the community that I was brought up in. So, that always factors into my thought process.”
Re-Emerging Films’ The Amazing Nina Simone screens at Vancouver Playhouse at 7 p.m. on June 16. Tickets are available at amazingnina.com.
Alexis Pavlich is a Vancouver-based freelance writer.