Even just watching YouTube videos of jazz-soul singer Nina Simone – playing her political hit Four Women in 1969, big heavy-metal hoop earrings dangling, or pounding out civil rights anthem Mississippi Goddam on the piano, in no makeup and a sparkling sleeveless gown, in 1988 – you feel the intensity of her eyes, the way her deep voice slinks up and down, always rooted.
How do you recreate or reinterpret that, the breath of a musician’s life, their art, as a biopic, on film?
“It’s a beautiful genre, if you do it right, and capture the essence of that person,” said Cynthia Mort, writer and director of an untitled biopic of Simone. The movie will star Avatar’s Zoe Saldana as the late, great singer and is set to start filming in mid October off the Los Angeles and Santa Barbara coasts to represent the south of France, where North Carolina native Simone settled in the early 1990s and passed away at age 70 in 2003.
Mort, who co-wrote 2007 revenge thriller The Brave One, starring Jodie Foster, was already a longtime Simone fan. She spent the day with the singer as an assistant on a photo shoot in the mid ‘90s at an apartment Simone kept in Hollywood, then wrote a screenplay about Simone years after. Mary J. Blige was going to star in the movie, but had to drop out due to scheduling, said Mort.
Saldana, with her natural beauty and a musical side, was a great fit.
“I think it’s a big role for anybody. Nina Simone was large, in many ways. She’s iconic and brilliant and talented,” said Mort. “I find Zoe to be incredibly compelling. She has a lot of great qualities.”
The movie will focus on Simone’s later life, in the ‘90s, with flashbacks to her youth and the experience of moments such as the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
According to Mort, more than anything, the movie is a love story, a way to explore Simone’s life. Ray, starring Jamie Foxx in 2004 as Ray Charles, snagging him an Oscar, also explored his marriages and many love affairs, on top of his music. Love humanizes a character, even those as larger than life as musicians such as Simone, Charles, Janis Joplin or Jimi Hendrix.
British actor David Oyelowo has been touted as Simone’s love interest, cast as Simone’s manager-nurse Clifton Henderson. Simone’s own daughter, Lisa Celeste Stroud, who goes by the performance name Simone, has spoken out publicly, however, saying Henderson was gay and only in a business relationship with her mother.
Despite that, Mort calls Oyelowo’s character a “composite of people,” she said. “Without sounding ridiculous, the love story is between Nina and her journey, like most artists. The male nurse character is used to show some incredible moments in her life.”
With a biopic of wild rocker Joplin moving forward, to star Tony winner Nina Arianda and directed by Martha Marcy May Marlene director Sean Durkin, and All is by My Side, a John Ridley-directed biopic of Hendrix starring rapper-singer Andre Benjamin (aka Andre 3000), having just wrapped filming, there’s been a wealth of musician-centric biopics on the rise.
Movies such as 1980’s Coal Miner’s Daughter, starring Sissy Spacek as country crooner Loretta Lynn, and Clint Eastwood’s 1988 opus Bird, starring a young Forest Whitaker as drugged up jazz saxophone phenom Charlie Parker, show the best of what biopics can be: Creative, soulful explorations of real people.
“When a musical film works, there’s no better form of entertainment,” said Chicago co-producer Neil Meron, who will co-produce next year’s Academy Awards. “Every department has a chance to strut their stuff. It’s like unadulterated joy. It goes deep into you.”
For Mort’s biopic of Simone, there’s the balance of music and image. While the film about Joplin reportedly landed the rights to Joplin’s best known tunes, the Hendrix biopic didn’t, leaving Benjamin to cover songs Hendrix covered, by Muddy Waters, the Beatles and other artists.
“Getting the song rights is complicated,” said Mort. “With an artist like Nina, it’s scattered. We have secured the rights to a number of songs. We’ve also been in contact with Al Schackman, who was Nina’s guitarist. He’s incredibly supportive of the movie.”
There’s also the pressure of representing a musician not just to fans, but also to that artist’s family.
“Any creative decision is difficult. I’ve talked to her,” said Mort of being in touch with Simone’s daughter, who has spoken critically of the film. “It’s complicated. It’s her mother. I’m a mother and a daughter. I feel very strong about it in every way. I feel like we’re honoring her, Nina Simone.”
Then there’s the excitement and challenge of dressing Saldana in Simone’s signature bold style of jewelry and dresses, which Mort called “unreal.” French costume designer Magali Guidasci (Zombieland) has been brought in.
“The costumes are going to be insane and fantastic,” said Mort. “It’s a big part of the music, also because it’s original. What Nina wore is not what anyone else could wear.”
Costume designer Jim Lapidus, who designed glitzy, snazzy creations for Liberace and Elton John, worked on 24, and supervised on the 1989 Jerry Lee Lewis biopic Great Balls of Fire!, noted the need to visually inspire an actor or actress taking on a musical icon.
“When I worked on the Jerry Lee Lewis story, I found a top in a thrift store identical to one his wife actually wore, from the early ‘50s,” he said. “A lot of times people don’t get into the character until they get into the clothes.”
Mort adds that the biopic genre is still ripe for newness. She herself wrote a screenplay about Janis Joplin that didn’t pan out.
“The genre needs some reinvention,” she said. “There are worthy stories, because they are great beings. I’m not saying I’m the one to do it. … For example, I think a Janis Joplin movie should be told. I hope the new movie works. Is it about the rise of this girl who left high school? About a girl who loves rock and roll? A lot of these stories should be told.”