February 13, 2015 / 2:38 PM / in 3 years

Nina Simone film honors exceptional artist, driven rights activist

BERLIN (Reuters) - A forthright documentary about Nina Simone premiered at the Berlin Film Festival, showing the life of a woman who struggled to find peace amid her roles as the high priestess of soul and as a committed civil rights activist.

“What happened, Miss Simone?” by director Liz Garbus mixes archive footage from the singer and pianist’s long career with interviews and tapes, showcasing her musical talent and political dedication.

“My mother was one of the greatest entertainers of all time, hands down. But she paid a huge price,” her daughter Lisa Simone Kelly, also executive producer of the biopic, says in the film.

The documentary describes Simone as a brilliant performer, but also a vibrant revolutionary who used the stage to speak out to the black community.

“But when the show ended, everybody else went home, she was alone and she was still fighting, but she was fighting her own demons, full of anger and rage,” her daughter says.

The film covers the early years of Simone, born Eunice Waymon in a small town in North Carolina where her mother, a preacher, took her to church to play the piano.

“She was alien to me,” Simone says in the film about her first piano teacher, an elderly white lady. “She started me on Bach. And this Bach, I liked him.”

Simone studied to become the first black female classical pianist in America. “And that’s all I had on my mind. That was what I was prepared to be.”

The film describes her journey as a jazz singer, politely presenting her version of “I Loves You, Porgy” in the television show “Playboy’s Penthouse”, presented by Hugh Hefner.

Later, Simone engages with the civil rights movement, telling Martin Luther King to his face: “I am not non-violent.”

The documentary also touches on the issue of domestic violence, with Simone suffering from her husband’s outbursts of fury and becoming aggressive herself towards her daughter in later years. By then, she had turned her back on the United States to live in Liberia and France, where she died in 2003.

“I wasn’t afraid because the truth is the truth,” Kelly told Reuters about exposing her family life. “You have ugly faces, you have beautiful faces and you have all the faces in between.”

The film faces competition for the Panorama Dokumente prize from 16 other films, including another musical biopic “Cobain: Montage of Heck” by Brett Morgen.

Editing by Catherine Evans

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