Music biopics – both documentaries and narrative features – are a dime a dozen these days. Even if your only claim to fame is cult status as a 1970s folksinger, chances are good someone has made a movie about you. That is, unless you’re a woman. Although 2013’s “Twenty Feet from Stardom” put the spotlight on ladies in music, biopics about female musical artists are still few and far between. For that reason alone, it’s worth checking out these three documentaries about groundbreaking female singers that were released this summer. Happily, there are plenty of other reasons to do so as well.
“The Outrageous Sophie Tucker”
Few know who she is these days but in 1962, ninety-two percent of people polled associated the name “Sophie” with “Tucker.” That’s how popular the eponymous singer and comedian used to be in vaudeville, cinema, and television. A Ukrainian Jew who fled a restrictive Orthodox family, she first made her name performing in the Ziegfeld Follies but quickly became known in her own right as a larger-than-life presence in every sense of that term. Through rare footage and interviews with Carol Channing, Paul Anka, Michael Feinstein, Tony Bennett, and Barbara Walters (whose father Lou headlined Tucker in his nightclubs), director William Gazecki paints a portrait of the woman who referred to herself as “the Last of the Red Hot Mamas.” Gazecki’s filmmaking is not especially innovative but this may work in his favor. It’s best to let the details about this pioneering woman speak for themselves: She was a self-marketing genius half a century before Madonna; a fat activist before Ms. Magazine was a twinkle in Gloria Steinem’s eye; an unabashed civil rights advocate, especially when it came to singers like Josephine Baker; a pal to the Kennedys and J. Edgar Hoover (the closeted cross-dresser asked to borrow her spangled gowns); and a highly sexualized being who had three husbands to her name and, this documentary suggests, many female lovers as well. She also was a highly innovative jazz stylist who mentored Mae West and Judy Garland. Bottom line: See this movie to know exactly who you should be thanking, ladies and germs.
“What Happened, Miss Simone?”
With her uncompromising activism and musical genius, a documentary about the great Nina Simone is always welcome. But given the state of our union, a look at her rise and fall and rise is especially welcome right now. Through interviews with family members and archival footage featuring the likes of Hugh Hefner, James Baldwin, Stokely Carmichael, and Miss Simone herself, a picture emerges of a woman who never lost sight of what she deserved, even when the world told her she was worth nothing. I hadn’t realized she’d intended to become the world’s first female black concert pianist but it makes sense. As director Liz Garbus illustrates, a classical meticulousness and solemnity underscored Simone’s most bluesy numbers. More to the point, her angry grief directed at the institutionalized racism that prevented her from receiving proper training proved life-defining. When the Civil Rights movement took root, she stepped to its forefront. She worked closely with Malcolm X (their families lived next door to each other) and wrote lyrics no one else would dare write; the footage of her howling “Mississippi, Goddamn” will give you chills. While Garbus is to be commended for capturing the artist’s sorrow and strengths, her doc might’ve benefitted from more musical footage and less airtime for Simone’s abusive second husband. Still, this is a documentary to be savored and studied. Our country needs powerhouses like Nina as it never has before.
Though wildly talented, Amy Winehouse was less of a trailblazer than Tucker and Simone – at least superficially. But director Asif Kapadia (“Senna”) makes a brilliant case for the tour de force Winehouse might have been had she not succumbed to the maelstrom of disorders and paparazzi that is contemporary fame. Before she fell prey to the “twenty-seven curse” (she died at twenty-seven years old, the same age as musical legends Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison), the British singer-songwriter crafted the nearly perfect jazz album in “Frank” and the Grammy-winning, platinum R&B album “Back to Black,” and ample footage of her practicing, recording, and performing suggests she had tons more to offer. Though his autopsy of Winehouse’s demise drags (no one in her camp comes off smelling like a rose), what’s admirable is Kapadia’s emphasis on her devastating musical chops. Is it possible for an artist to lay herself as divinely bare as Amy did in her work and not suffer for the attendant vulnerability? It’s a question this documentary asks but, thankfully, doesn’t dare answer. Instead, pushing past the tabloid fodder, it gently reminds us of what we really lost.
This was originally published in Word and Film.