“Ain’t Got No, I Got Life”: #OscarsSoWhite & the Problem of Women Musicians on Film




Then what have I got
Why am I alive anyway?
Yeah, what have I got
Nobody can take away

— Nina Simone

AN HOUR INTO Liz Garbus’s 2015 documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?, the virtuosic musician and black freedom struggle activist delivers one of her trademark, wholly original rewrites of someone else’s song. In her cover versions of music from the 1967 countercultural musical Hair, Simone yokes together two of that show’s signature numbers, “Ain’t Got No” and “I Got Life” to build a new black anthem — one that can stand alongside her self-authored protest songs from that decade (“Mississippi Goddam,” “Four Women”). It encompasses a full range of emotions and sociopolitical messages, the emotions and messages she so masterfully translated into a vast repertoire of recordings and live performances, spanning a career of more than four decades. Sitting in at the piano with swinging pendulum earrings, a short ’fro, and a black, strapless crocheted number that reveals the smooth contours of her bare shoulders, the brownness of her body holding center stage, Simone moves with pointed contemplation through one song’s tale of desolation, alienation, and disenfranchisement (“Ain’t got no home / ain’t got no shoes / ain’t got no money / ain’t got no class”) into a different song entirely, one that is a jubilant affirmation of embodied self-possession (“Then what have I got? / Why am I alive anyway? […] I got my arms, got my hands / I’ve got life / I’ve got my freedom”).

It is a performance that stages a Black Power call-and-response moment to ring in the “Black is Beautiful” era, and under Liz Garbus’s sharp direction, the footage is framed by archival interviews of the artist, decked out in an elegant wide-brimmed hat, articulating the crisis of a people robbed of their history and expressing the urgent “need to promote this feeling […] ‘Who am I? Where do I come from? Do I really like me? If I am black and beautiful […] I don’t care who says what […]’”

Garbus is a sophisticated storyteller and her Academy Award–nominated documentary uses performances, in part, to construct a compelling narrative about the artist who would come to be known as The High Priestess of Soul. As she told me during a visit to Yale University last spring to screen the film for my undergraduate lecture class on black women in popular music culture, Simone’s performances were crucial to the arc of the story that What Happened, Miss Simone? aims to tell. Culled from more than 100 hours of never-before-heard audio tapes, rare concert footage, and excerpts from the artist’s diaries and private letters, the film has been celebrated by critics and fans alike for primarily giving us “Nina Simone in her own words,” while making economic use of several key and (in the case of Simone’s abusive ex-husband Andy Stroud) controversial talking heads.

In the season of #OscarsSoWhite, which, it must be noted, repeats itself every year — at least in this middle-aged viewer’s memory since I began watching in 1978 as a Star Wars fangirl who’d fallen hopelessly in love with the movies — What Happened, Miss Simone? is an outlier work of cinema in a sea of racially homogeneous nominees. Although made by a white, third-wave feminist filmmaker who majored in semiotics at Brown, it nonetheless stars an African-American female genius musician who was raised as a classically trained child prodigy pianist in the Jim Crow South, and who would evolve into a world-renowned cosmopolitan performer recognized for her enormous originality and her unapologetic commitment to weaving black radical tradition politics into the fabric of her sound. This she did, as the film reveals, while simultaneously battling violent patriarchy on the home front. To put it in pop cultural parlance, the details of Nina Simone’s life may read to some like a dead serious, sky-high-stakes version of Shonda Thursdays, that roster of shows in which powerful, brilliant, extraordinarily “imperfect” women — and especially women of color — repeatedly choose their work and themselves over the lovers in their lives. Show me another nominated film like that anywhere in the nearly 100-year history of the Academy (and spare me the shaky Lady Sings the Blues argument).

In this second year in which social media put the Academy on blast for its chronic inclusion problems, calling attention to an all-white roll call of major category nominees and the extra sting of a white screenwriting duo and white superstar actor nominated for two films that channel the energy and passion of the Black Lives Matter movement (Straight Out of Compton and Creed, respectively), the fact that Garbus’s film is a contender should have made at least a few headlines, but it has curiously remained something of a footnote this season. (Here it might be worth noting as well the lack of discussion about The Martian, starring the diversity-obtuse Matt Damon — a conventional Ridley Scott adventure film, for sure, but one that ironically features an unprecedented number of men of color bucking convention in supporting roles as scientists and space explorers: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, Michael Peña, and Donald Glover as the superwonk whiz kid who solves an astronomical puzzle and brings the hero home.) Yet the astonishing statistics regarding the types of black performances that are awarded Oscars — recently revealed by Brandon K. Thorp in The New York Times — underscore what many of us have long recognized as the severity of a situation in which complex black female cultural figures are rarely, if ever, the subject of full-length feature films. In his insightful piece, Thorp reports:

In the history of the Oscars, 10 black women have been nominated for best actress, and nine of them played characters who are homeless or might soon become so. (The exception is Viola Davis, for the 2011 drama “The Help.”)

[…]

No black woman has ever received a best-actress nomination for portraying an executive or even a character with a college degree.

[…]

All 10 performances for which black women have received best-actress nominations involve poor or lower-income characters, and half of those are penniless mothers

[…]

Seven of the 10 best-actress nominees played characters with absent or incarcerated husbands, boyfriends, or fathers. And six of the characters suffer physical abuse, with five of them being raped.

Why What Happened, Miss Simone? has flown beneath the radar of the Oscar controversy has, most likely, as much to do with the fact that the documentary film category rarely garners much mainstream attention (save for those years when Michael Moore was lighting a fire under the nation’s ass) as it does with the fact that Garbus’s film has been overshadowed in that category by another bio-doc about a female musician far better known to the masses in contemporary popular culture — and one who suffered a spectacular and tragic decline still fresh in the public’s memory. Asif Kapadia’s Amy, about the retro-soul phenom Amy Winehouse who died in 2011, is, as we turn towards Oscar weekend, the odds-on favorite to win the prize for best documentary. The ironies involving a film about a white soul singer beating out a film about an African-American female musician dubbed by many to be one of the greatest artists of her generation clearly abound. But a win for Amy is also a shame because, as good as Kapadia’s film is — a real forward-reaching exercise in cinematic biography built by and out of our digital and cyberage cultures — Garbus’s work is historic, a milestone in both the genre of music biopics (both dramatic and documentary films) and in the thriving scholarly field of what has become known to some as “Nina Simone studies” in the world of academia.

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There are those of us who have been waiting for a Nina film for many years now, dreaming and lobbying for potential casting coups (as I did back in 2011 when I approached actor-director Forest Whitaker during his visit to Princeton and begged — literally begged him — to find a way to get a Nina biopic made with Viola Davis!). At the time, Mr. Whitaker very kindly heard me out and noted that a project was already in the works at that time with Mary J. Blige. That project, directed by Cynthia Mort, as many people now know, has grown in infamy in subsequent years as Blige dropped out before shooting began and Dominican ingénue Zoe Saldana was recast as Simone to blistering backlash, including an internet petition aimed at stopping the shoot. The debates surrounding Saldana’s casting were almost entirely limited to questions of colorism and racial authenticity politics (e.g., the question of how an Afro-Latina several shades lighter than Simone could “accurately portray” an artist for whom blackness and her own dark-skinned womanhood were central to both her music and her intersectional politics). The leaked-to-the-internet photos of Saldana blackfaced-up and donning a prosthetic wide nose, coupled with the actress’s unsophisticated remarks about racial formations in American culture, only fanned the flames of outrage. For what it’s worth, my beef with Saldana’s casting (and Blige’s, for that matter) was always primarily a question of the nature of her chops. Simone’s contralto singing combined with her classical training, her avant-garde sonic experimentalism, and her commitment to agitprop performance politics demanded both an actor and a filmmaker who could summon the (Ralph) Ellisonian “lower frequencies” of Nina Simone’s iconic character, a lower affective acting register, if you will. Wherever you may stand on the matter, the finished film, cursed as it may be, has yet to see the light of day, as Mort remains entangled in legal squabbles with her production company.

Nonetheless, Nina Simone is currently having a long overdue “moment,” as NPR referred to it last fall — one which has given us, among other things, a tribute album featuring Lauryn Hill and other artists; the ubiquity of her music in soundtracks and commercials for everything from cars to network crime drama; the invocation of her sound and symbolism in the work of contemporary artists ranging from Kanye West, John Legend, and Talib Kweli to alternative musicians Feist and Peaches; and the upcoming release of yet another documentary directed by Jeff Lieberman. Meanwhile, all of the kvetching over Mort’s biopic, while seeming to deflect attention away from Garbus’s film as it was being made, may have actually helped to clear a space for its welcome reception as fans demanded a “truer” version of Nina on film.

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Having been nominated previously for an Oscar for her first documentary, The Farm: Angola, USA (1998) — an early and important contribution to new millennial prison studies and prison reform activism — Garbus is, in certain ways, an ideal figure to helm this project, since she is no stranger to examining black lives under duress or to making bold, political statements as a filmmaker. The first feature-length documentary on Simone to be released since her death at the age of 70 in 2003, What Happened, Miss Simone? entered into the fray on the festival circuit early last year, debuting at Sundance to a warm reception and subsequently premiering on Netflix in early summer 2015, becoming that studio’s first documentary film release.

Beyond its significance as a marker of the expanding cultural relevance of that streaming juggernaut, it cannot be overemphasized what a significant contribution this film makes to representations of women in popular music culture. If one considers the pure scarcity and the uneven quality of feature films about female musicians, and women of color musicians in particular, throughout the history of modern cinema, the gravity of what Garbus’s film aims to achieve is striking. Consider the precedents: the fictionalized tearjerker melodrama A Star Is Born (both the 1954 Judy Garland remake and the 1976 Barbra Streisand remix), the pseudobiographical jazz or rock star self-destruction epics brought to life by Diana Ross (1972’s Lady Sings the Blues) and Bette Midler (1979’s The Rose), the earnest tragedy-to-triumph tales of Loretta Lynn (1980’s Coal Miner’s Daughter) and Tina Turner (1993’s What’s Love Got To Do With It), the memorial tribute tenor of J. Lo’s turn as “Selena” (1997’s film of the same name), and the hyperbolically fictionalized tale of The Supremes (2006’s Dreamgirls). True, Reese Witherspoon picked up the gold in 2005 for her portrayal of country pioneer June Carter Cash … in a film marketed as the story of “the rise” of husband Johnny. Alex Keshishian’s self-consciously postmodern homage to Madonna, Madonna: Truth or Dare (1991), is arguably the most significant, metacritical big-screen examination of a pop musician, woman or man, that we have to date. And director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s really fine and woefully underrecognized fictional tale Beyond The Lights (2014) is an equally sophisticated take on a female musician’s quest for artistic integrity.

The smaller screen has had a better track record at bringing narratives of female pop musicians to fruition, while nonetheless cleaving to Empire-style soap conventions — especially in the new millennium and in the wake of the late 1990s Behind the Music phenomenon (see, for instance, network fare like 2000’s Livin’ for Love: The Natalie Cole Story, which featured the recently departed singer as herself, and campy basic cable entries like CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story, the truly challenged Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B from 2014, and the slightly more admirable Whitney from 2015). Pariah director Dee Rees’s Bessie (2015), starring Queen Latifah as “The Empress of the Blues,” marked a gigantic leap in stylishness for these sorts of films, coupling HBO highbrow production values with black feminist queer aesthetics. The nature of the professional relationship — a mentorship-turned-rivalry-turned-friendship — between two black women musicians (Mo’Nique’s Ma Rainey and Latifah’s Bessie) has arguably never been brought to the screen with the kind of nuance and detail that Rees summoned in this project.

Bessie arrived the same year as both What Happened, Miss Simone? and Amy and in the midst of what is arguably a new boom in women musician documentaries: Beyonce’s savvy, enchanting, new media juggernaut Life Is But A Dream (2013); The Outrageous Sophie Tucker (2014), which traces the life of the Jewish blues shouter; this year’s Roberta Flack: Killing Me Softly from Showtime; Mavis! from HBO; and the soon-to-be-released Miss Sharon Jones!, which follows the hardest-working woman in retro-soul’s recovery from cancer and return to the concert circuit. Even the Queen of Soul was momentarily in on the act — apparently against her wishes — when the long-withheld footage of her pathbreaking Amazing Grace concert album sessions, recorded at New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles in 1972 and shot by Sidney Lumet, was set to finally be shown at last year’s Toronto film festival … until the powers that be pulled the plug.

The new fascination with black women musicians in documentary has clearly gained traction in the wake of the box office and Oscar success of 20 Feet From Stardom (2013), director Morgan Neville’s feel-good, putative reparations tale of the backup singers (mostly women and mostly of color) who’ve supplied the vocal depth and power for rock’s Jurassic luminaries. Short on feminist scholarly voices (like Maureen Mahon, who’s been writing about Stones backup legend Merry Clayton for years now) and long on the loving words and music of white men (Bruce Springsteen, Sting) who benefitted from the women who sonically supported them, it is a film that reproduces the power dynamics it ostensibly sets out to unseat. The voices of critics like David Ritz, Warren Zanes, and Todd Boyd loom large, while former Ikette Claudia Lennear is featured in a clip discussing her sexual commodification in a way that reads like lurid sexual tell-all. The sentimental arc of the comeback narrative (in the case of Darlene Love) and the striving aspirant (in the case of Judith Hill) shape the direction of the film. Nary a vocalist is asked about her technique, her style, or her influences.

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It goes without saying, then, that what none of these works do what Garbus’s film does so eloquently, and with a kind of beauty and reverence for the music, is to use Simone’s live performances as critical narration and as thematic arcs in the film’s trajectory. Garbus is unafraid of allowing us to live in these sometimes intense, extended scenes of Simone’s performances, where her notoriously volatile (at times passionate, playful, and affectionate, and other times combative) relationship with her audience and her tremendous commitment to technical and artistic excellence are on display. These performances operate as a kind of metanarrative voice in the story of Nina Simone’s ascent as a musician and the battles that she waged both publicly and privately to maintain control of her artistic autonomy, her political integrity, and her fundamental personhood as an African-American woman on the frontlines of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. Take, for instance, the opening, which lingers on Simone taking the stage at the 1976 Montreux jazz festival concert and declaring both her return to performing after a long hiatus as well as her imminent departure from the jazz festival circuit (“after which I shall graduate to a higher class, I hope, and I hope you will come with me […]”). Here we are invited to listen closely to a musician documenting the aesthetic labors of her career. After a long, deep bow and an extended pause looking out into the darkness of the audience, Simone takes her seat at the piano and refers to her first recording from 1958, announcing that she and her ensemble will “start from the beginning, which was about a little girl. Her name was Blue […]” Simone in performance thus initiates the narrative journey on which we will now embark.

Or consider the tumultuous gravitas of her reading of “For All We Know,” a clip taken from early in her career, which serves as a complement to her devoted guitarist Al Schackman’s reflections on the first time he played with Nina. “It was like we had a telepathic relationship,” Schackman muses, while Simone likewise offers her own observations about Schackman’s talents and the necessary skills needed to keep up with her: “He has perfect pitch which means that no matter what key I’m in he’s able to adapt […] because I do that all the time. I change the key that I’m in […]” Simone’s voiceovers enable her to extemporize on her craft with precision and clarity. “What I was interested in,” she observes, “was conveying an emotional message, which means using everything you’ve got in you […] [S]ometimes I sound like gravel, and sometimes I sound like coffee and cream […]” This and other potent performances of songs such as “Backlash Blues,” “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” and a riveting, late-in-life rendition of “My Baby Just Cares for Me” to close the film amount to something of the sonic metalanguage of the film, the other frequency on which we hear and see an artist choosing to “reflect the [political as well as personal] times.”

Garbus’s careful placement of the footage in conversation with the commentary of others allows for Simone, the musician, to constantly build and rebuild what Josh Kun and Alex Vazquez might each call a “sonic place of dwelling” for herself as the voices of her loving, conflicted, and candid daughter Lisa, family friends such as Ambassador Attallah Shabazz and Ilyasah Shabazz (the daughters of Malcolm X), European caregivers (whose role in returning her to the stage late in her career remains a source of controversy), and her morally compromised ex, Stroud, each contemplate her mental health, the price of fame, and the toll that liberation activism took on her spirit.

For many viewers and critics, the late Stroud’s presence in the film, and the posthumous use of interview footage with an avowed wife beater who openly distanced himself from Black Power activism and encouraged his mate to do the same, is a nonstarter — a narrative choice that potentially re-objectifies Simone. Some detractors have critiqued the sparingly used yet nevertheless confusing and unnecessary black-and-white reenactment scenes meant to convey images of her childhood in the church. And others have pointed to the absence of crucial songs in the artist’s repertoire (most notably “Four Women,” Simone’s intersectionality protest anthem) as a significant oversight, although Garbus has argued that copyright clearances forced her team to have to leave certain songs by the wayside. One esteemed colleague complained to me about the choice to feature veteran male critics (Stanley Crouch) and women whose memories of Simone are rooted in their childhood (the Shabazz sisters), instead of black feminist scholarly voices who have published research on Simone (full disclosure: I am one of those voices). This particular colleague was especially troubled by the emphasis on Simone’s mental health issues and the frank and unvarnished descriptions of an abusive and neglectful mother made by daughter Lisa (who served as an executive producer on the film as well). “Take your issues somewhere else,” my colleague put it bluntly. She wished for a film that could be first and foremost about the music, really living inside of it and taking apart the brilliance of what Simone accomplished in the recording studio and onstage each night.

Point well taken. But at the end of the day, I am swayed by the words of my students who were visibly and palpably moved by the film in class, some 18 hours after the screening. “I wish,” said my student Eli, “we’d had films like this for all of the women we’re exploring in this course.” Her words cut to the heart of the problem in cultural representations of women musicians, a problem that scholars such as Farah Griffin, Gayle Wald, and others have done much work to address over the past two decades. Until recently, the cards have been overwhelmingly stacked against black women musicians telling their own uncompromised, amanuensis-free stories — and importantly, telling stories that place craft at the center of their life ambitions and concerns. While white female rock musicians have been cranking out compelling and sometimes infuriating memoirs of late (see Patti Smith’s celebrated twin oeuvres, Kim Gordon’s Girl in a Band, Carrie Brownstein’s Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, and the unfortunate Chrissie Hynde autobiography, Reckless), the voices of black women musicians have historically been distorted or muted on the page. One would have to look to something like the little known yet mesmerizing 1988 oral history of legendary jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams (“Rhythm Section” in Max Jones’s anthology Talking Jazz) to find a text about a woman and her passionate pursuit of a life in music driven primarily by the artist herself.

The reasons for this have everything to do with institutional racism and sexism, twin pillars of American culture, which are finally making their way into the popular consciousness and vocabulary. The mainstreaming of this discourse owes its thanks, in part, to a broadening new media commons where young, progressive thinkers and grassroots activists have larger platforms on which to shape national conversations, creating the conditions for movements to take shape and pressuring white rappers to record songs about reckoning with their racial and gender entitlement. But long before the era of Macklemore’s “White Privilege II,” the sociopolitical and cultural structures that obscured the histories and lives of black women in the music industry were subjects few gave a damn about. That’s how blues women like the badass and largely lost-to-history guitar duo Elvie Thomas and Geeshie Wiley have remained egregiously neglected for more than 80 years, despite the fact that they rocked a handful of hypnotic blues tunes that rivaled the work of Charley Patton, Son House, and Skip James.

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I said as much last fall when I gave a lecture on those two artists at UC Berkeley and then felt the full weight of history bearing down on me as I jumped in an Uber and sped over the Bay Bridge to make it into the San Francisco Contemporary Jewish Museum before closing time that day. I was there to catch the dual Amy Winehouse exhibits being shown: A Family Portrait and You Know I’m No Good. The jarring contrast between talking for an hour and a half about how much we don’t know about two African-American women artists who made remarkable music but whose precarious lives were caught in the throes of Jim Crow and an exploitative culture industry, on the one hand, and the wealth of memorabilia, archival objects, and media documentation of a millennial white woman pop star, on the other, was enough to make me hyperventilate. But let’s not get it twisted. Winehouse suffered enormously in her own time, in her own historical moment even as (to cue up the Macklemore) she built her short, meteoric rise on the backs of the Geeshies and Elvies, those women who supplied the blues DNA for our modern pop music lexicon.

Kapadia’s Amy is much better at exploring the suffering Amy rather than the “white privilege” Amy in his documentary, which, especially in its first half hour or so, presents itself as something of a companion piece to A Family Portrait — in spite of the fact that Amy’s father Mitch, speaking on behalf of the family, ultimately distanced the Winehouses from the film after they had initially given their blessing to the project. Like the exhibit, the first quarter of the documentary resituates the singer in her North London neighborhood with friends and family and sans the ’60s-girl-group-gone-punk beehive, tats, and Liz Taylor Cleopatra look that quickly became her trademark when her breakthrough album Back to Black dropped in 2006. I’ve written about Winehouse elsewhere, at the height of the mania surrounding both her sound (Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi–produced retro-soul for the hip-hop generation) and her vexing iconicity (black women’s vocal aesthetics all wrapped up in white socially transgressive womanhood). What was immediately so moving to me about the footage that Kapadia offers is that, as many have argued, it reminds us of the other sides of a woman whose substance abuse and increasingly inscrutable public behavior had effectively obscured them. Just as A Family Portrait takes us into the home of Amy’s childhood and follows the archival footprint of her journey through theater school (with a display of her audition essay) into the National Youth Jazz Orchestra and onto a major label record deal, so too does the film, early on, make poignant use of home movies and digital documentation of quotidian adolescent and young adult life, as Winehouse developed her chops and pursued her career as a live musician and recording artist.

This is, hands down, what is most startling and intriguing about Amy and what its first 30 minutes, in a sense, do slightly more consistently than What Happened, Miss Simone? The former showcases a female musician’s deep investment in cultivating her craft. Now, to be fair, musician biopics are often wanting in this category (does anyone recall Ray engaging in a detailed exploration of the ways that Charles invented a new genre of American popular music?). 2014’s Godfather of Soul odyssey, Get On Up! and last year’s Brian Wilson saga Love & Mercy are stronger-than-usual offerings in this genre, in part because of the ways that each pays attention to the drama and wonder of each artist’s music and the music-making process. Unsurprisingly, women musicians’ biopics and documentaries have a greater void to fill given pop music criticism’s historically poor track record when it comes to examining the sonic aspirations of women artists. Amy immediately offers us a snapshot of an artist coming of age and growing into her music. Winehouse and her friends and family have the 21st-century middle-class privilege to document themselves in ways that no previous generation had before them, and thus it is possible to track her in her teens, so young and fresh-faced, riding in her manager’s car looking wide-eyed and thoughtful and anticipatory about the future, auditioning in a cardigan and jeans and with guitar in hand for 19 Management Records, singing a version of her first single (“Stronger Than Me” off her 2003 debut album Frank) in a dark, intimate London club.

In those heady, early-2000s years when Winehouse was on the cover of every tabloid, few were commenting on her shrewd songwriting aesthetics — an amalgam of hip-hop swagger, big emotion, and jazz diva melodrama — but Kapadia smartly includes the lyrics to her songs in subtitle for nearly all of the performances in the film. Some of that may be due to the fact that Winehouse had notoriously perfected a sometimes indecipherable “slur” in her delivery, but the effect of being able to see the discursive bent of her narratives is to remind us of the central role that she played in producing multiple dimensions of her repertoire. Within moments of the film’s opening, too, we are given a list of influences (Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, Tony Bennett) who shaped her own approach to vocal performance. Like the Jewish Museum’s display of her Regal guitar and her tracklist for a mixtape entitled “Songs on My Chill-Out Tape” (my favorite object in the exhibit, by far: a combination of tracks by Ella, Sinatra, Luscious Jackson, Patti Labelle, Curtis Mayfield, Pearl Jam, and others), this is a reminder of a female musician’s aesthetic desires and pleasures and cultural knowledges often overlooked in gender-biased jazz and pop music criticism about women artists.

What Amy is not good at — in fact, what it overlooks altogether — is historicizing Winehouse’s sound and the singer as a pop phenomenon. No explicit interrogation of why a North London Jewish girl would find solace in emulating a range of black women’s signature vocal styles — from Billie Holiday to Lauryn Hill — is ever attempted, which is not all that surprising given the persistently present absence of recognizing black musicians’ foundational and lasting impact on our mainstream pop world (see especially the 2015 Grammys telecast featuring Hozier and Annie Lennox performing “Put a Spell On You,” or see the current Adelemania).

One of the pieces in the second exhibit at the SF Jewish Museum, You Know I’m No Good, lingers on this question in the work of artist Jennie Ottinger in her piece, which is partially derived from some of my scholarship on Winehouse (but without my participation in the production of that work). It should be noted that my interest in this aspect of Winehouse’s career — her deep indebtedness to particular and often histrionic constructions of “blackness” as sound, style, and social comportment — is fueled largely by a longing for richer, more sophisticated, and more detailed examinations of the ways in which “blackness” and “whiteness” mutually constitute each other sonically in popular music culture. If critics can move beyond pure panic and defensiveness about the “A” word — about appropriation and what’s owed black folks for the unmatched cultural contributions they made to modernity (while also finally and seriously answering that question straight up) — then we might be able to say something more substantial about, for instance, the meaning of “blackness” for one white girl “of a different color.” That white girl Amy’s ancestors, the Winehauses, the exhibit curators speculate, survived the pogroms, resettled in the East End to raise families who would eventually raise postwar families in the London suburbs while bringing grand- and great-grandchildren like Amy back to the old neighborhoods to “listen to vivid stories of their family’s history and immigrant past.”

Yet that is not the story that Kapadia is trying to tell here, and I lamented this fact outside the theater in New Haven where my partner and I saw Amy on opening night last summer. I was accosted by a sister with a strong (yet unidentifiable) European-sounding accent who told me that if I “were to ever visit England” (I had) then I “would know that we don’t think of race that way over there.” I had a number of qualms with her argument, but how I wished for the content of our debate to have made its way into the film.

Instead, the bulk of Amy’s content shares disturbing similarities with the saddest and most troubling parts of Garbus’s film. Close friends and confidantes, who agreed, after some coaxing, to work with Kapadia on this project, recount with grief and regret the details of Winehouse’s rapid decline. We come to discover that, like Simone, Winehouse struggled with mental health issues as well as a horrific eating disorder, which plagued her from her teens forward and into her celebrity years. Most chillingly, like Simone as well, she found herself in the throes of an abusive relationship with music video runner Blake Fielder-Civil, one that was intensely addictive, leading to marriage and an even harder run with drugs. Kapadia includes the clammy, hushed, and creepy voice of Fielder-Civil explaining away their codependencies (“I liked to sabotage myself, and I think Amy liked to sabotage herself […]”) and making cold, judgmental allusions to his lover’s sexuality (“I used to ask her why she was promiscuous and why she likes to have sex like a man […]”) in ways that echo Stroud’s haughty statements about his ex-wife (“Basically, she had no control over her emotions, and sex dominated her […]”). Both films try to make use of personal writing (diary entries and audio interviews in the case of Simone, handwritten song lyrics in the case of Winehouse) to counter the suffocating effects of each man’s narration in these moments, but both films ultimately suffer from collapsing at these junctures into a kind of invasiveness that threatens with its own form of violent reification.

Some have argued that that violence permeates Amy’s focus on tracking the decline of its subject in such spectacular detail. It is perhaps both a circumstance of tragedy and a question of convenience for the filmmakers that Winehouse’s ascent as a global pop superstar and her descent into fatal substance abuse coincided with the birth of the iPhone and the rapid expansion and ubiquitous use of digital media to capture every aspect of celebrity life onstage and off of it. The dense accumulation and meticulous dissemination of photographs and video clips over such a short period of time — from the release of Back to Black in 2006 to her death in 2011 — is a testament to the centrality of new technologies in the rapid production of fame, as well as the role that these new technologies will continue to play in reshaping our archival knowledge about pop musicians. Kapadia navigates this archive with skill and care, even if he also lets that archive run away with the story he sets out to tell. As is the case with Garbus’s film, the narrative swings like Simone’s Hair anthem between articulating the beauty of a woman who reveled in the joys of a life lived in music (“What have I got / Nobody can take it away”) and the fragility of a life that fell apart in spite of the enormous power of that music.

In the end, it might be worth noting once more the poignancy of Winehouse’s mixtape tracklist and its ability to call attention to the need for a fuller and deeper story of her life as well as Simone’s. Nestled between the Mickey Mouse Club’s “Mickey Mouse March” and Julie London’s “I Should Care” lies track #9, “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” One imagines a bit of footage that we don’t have on a film, a clip that we can only dream of: Winehouse slipping on the headphones and swaying to the High Priestess’s 1964 recording of that slow-tempo declaration of self-worth and narrative autonomy while we, the audience, try to answer a new and much-needed Bechdel test question for films about women musicians — is it about their craft or is it about something else?

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Daphne A. Brooks is professor of African American Studies, Theater Studies, and American Studies at Yale University.


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