Nina on Netflix

Simone leads a chorus of music docs streaming online

Cable television of the new millennium – Netflix – could finally offset its absurdly long load time by becoming a home to rock docs. Another “Netflix Original,” What Happened, Miss Simone?, has raised a field holler of hosannas for its documentation of folk, jazz, and civil rights activist Nina Simone. A review of it is quite simple: Devastating.

Archival footage of the booming singer and pianist born Eunice Waymon in North Carolina, 1933, has thus far stopped all commentators in their tracks. “Li’l Liza Jane,” for instance, performed by Simone in her debut at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1960, might just initiate a congregational get-down in your living room. That tambourine shakes you.

Nevertheless, it’s her role in Martin Luther King’s army, replayed through photos and film of white atrocities and black subjugation, that forces tears. Add to that the singer’s abusive marriage and own parenthood, plus a deep, dark struggle with mental health, and another tale of musical genius and madness unfolds the pain of humanity and its offshoot creativity. Director Liz Garbus garnered a 1999 Academy Award nomination for The Farm: Angola, USA, and three years later won an audience award at SXSW Film for further tales of violence in Girlhood.

One takeaway from What Happened, Miss Simone? is its subject’s instrumental dominance. A classical pianist in childhood, Simone hoped to become the nation’s first black champion of Bach and his ilk. Like Georgian Ray Charles (1930-2004) and New Orleans’ James Booker (1939-1983), whose doc Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius of James Booker premiered at SXSW 2013 and deserves a home on Netflix, Simone’s commingling of classical music with black roots genres remains amongst the most progressive of all 20th Century sounds.

Simone played Bass Concert Hall in 2000 – three years before her death at 70. Her deteriorating state was every bit as devastating as her story. I never got so much hate mail for saying the queen wore no clothes – or rather, arrived adiposed.

Equally brutal is another current Netflix staple, Beware of Mr. Baker, easily one of the finest modern films about a musician. When Ginger Baker played the One World Theatre last month with his current jazz combo – starring James Brown great Pee Wee Ellis on sax – he’d just been released from the hospital for pneumonia and flown in from South Africa for the gig. Ever the protean force of nature, the Cream and Blind Faith drummer proved as indestructible live as he is mean, fearless, and rhythmically volcanic in Beware of Mr. Baker.

Netflix currently archives rock docs both classic (The Last Waltz, Spinal Tap) and contemporary (Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage). Timely, too, since History of the Eagles – all 3.5 hours of it – proved informative prior to the band’s appearance at the Frank Erwin Center in May. Netflix original The Other One: The Long Strange Trip of Bob Weir made perfect fodder for a Grateful Dead weekend over the Fourth of July.

A SXSW debut last year, Jimi: All Is by My Side, also streams online. According to reviews, André Benjamin invested himself totally in the early-years narrative feature of one James Marshall Hendrix. The same cannot be said for the rapper’s Atlanta duo Outkast, who didn’t even bother phoning in their reunion at ACL Fest that same fall.

Ain’t In It for My Health: A Film About Levon Helm; Greenwich Village: Music That Defined a Generation; Stevie Nicks: In Your Dreams; and Muscle Shoals – Netflix doesn’t have more stock than Vulcan Video or I Luv Video, but they’ll do in a couch potato pinch. Musicals also: Grease, The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Further, not only is last year’s Academy Award-winning documentary 20 Feet from Stardom also on the Net – find its Lisa Fischer at the One World Theatre on Aug. 8 – but the director, Morgan Neville, premieres his new rock doc on Netflix Sept. 18. That’s the day Keith Richards releases Crosseyed Heart, his first solo album since 1992 sophomore effort Main Offender. The film, Keith Richards: Under the Influence, came about in part when Neville interviewed the Rolling Stones’ bandleader about the group’s live “Gimme Shelter” siren of the last quarter-century – Fischer – for 20 Feet from Stardom.

And is new Doug Sahm history Sir Doug & the Genuine Texas Cosmic Groove next on Netflix? Apparently. Better still, with only today left in a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for Sahm music clearances, the filmmakers already exceeded their $75,000 goal. Congratulate them tonight at the Broken Spoke during a local fundraiser for the cause.

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Nina Simone, Martin Luther King, Ray Charles, James Booker, James Brown, pee Wee Ellis, Ginger Baker, Cream, Blind Faith, Eagles, Grateful Dead, Bob Weir, Keith Richards, Rolling Stones, Lisa Fischer, Doug Sahm, Jimi Hendrix, Outkast, Liz Garbus

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