Teri Orr: Your chance to Dance
January 23, 2015
It started, as it has, for the past 18 years, with Bob Redford taking the stage at the Eccles Center and welcoming film lovers to the Sundance Film Festival. The high priest of nurturing independent storytelling through film was welcomed right back by an enthusiastic packed house of folks who love to love film.
He spoke about need for a platform for documentaries and he said Sundance worked to push docs into the forefront and now it seemed fitting to open the festival with a powerful story of a powerful woman tortured by the times, her art, her color, her gender, and her imbalance of love and fear and a need to fly close to the flame.
Nina Simone was known for her musical talents — from playing piano at a young age (applying to the famed Curtis Institute and being denied because of her color) to her singing protest songs in the ’60s that became protest anthems. Her need to be in danger and deliver danger resulted in a mutually abusive marriage. Her desire to speak for her generation of black people, who were emerging with strong compelling voices, turned her melodic voice angry and harsh and shrill, but authentic, if not frightening. She, who became The High Priestess of Soul.
The film showed how her public career started with her rendition of "Li’l Liza Jane," the Negro folk song covered by everyone from Alison Krauss to Vince Gill, which came out of her with a vengeance and sweetness, all raw and jagged and haunting.
You rode on the waves of her wanting to be the first black classical pianist to play to Carnegie Hall, and that becoming her dream deferred to being a staple at jazz festivals, to being a militant Black Panther, to being a sick, bipolar, near penniless woman living in Switzerland and France and singing in dives. She abandoned her country and child and marriage and career, the year she disappeared to fly to Liberia to live in the country created by freed America slaves.
The film is filled with music and The Movement and compassion and passion. It is an unvarnished look at a life lived outside the lines. It was a bold statement — given the past six months of racial unrest, yet again in this country — for Sundance to have booked it as the opening film on Opening Night.
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But Sundance has done that all along. Pushed the edge of the frame. Colored outside the lines with all the colors. Made us uncomfortable enough we start a discussion about the merits of what we saw and heard and felt for a few hours in the dark.
When the credits had finished rolling, Festival Director John Cooper welcomed longtime Sundance veteran film director Liz Garbus back to the stage. Garbus spoke about the need for the dialogue of civil rights to take place, again, right now. And the importance of music in powerful storytelling. And then she said that tradition was continuing and the screen rose and sitting at the concert grand piano was multi-Grammy-award-winning artist John Legend. (The fabulous curtain behind him, not the usual Eccles red one but a show-stopping red and gold-braided one with giant gold tassels on the bottom was featured in the film, Moulin Rouge. It had been rented for the night.)
Legend spoke briefly about the influence Nina Simone had on his life, then performed three songs that Nina often did, ending with the oft-covered classic, written in 1964 for Nina (and made most famous by The Animals), "Please don’t let me be misunderstood."
And while we were humming along with the suddenly deeply meaningful and hauntingly beautiful chorus, "I’m just a soul whose intentions are good … Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood," there was moment when the audience was in awe and also in sync and it was electrifying magic.
I got lost then, remembering a moment few years back when Nina’s daughter, Lisa, who goes by the stage name Simone, performed in the summer at Deer Valley with Ryan Shaw. And she worked that crowd with protest songs and lullabies like a reincarnation of her (then recently passed) mother. And when she sang Nina’s classic, "My Baby Just Cares for Me," she jumped off the stage, onto the grass and into the audience. She put the mike in face of my bold friend Blake, who owns the remarkably successful Hell’s Backbone Grill in tiny (population 180) Boulder, Utah and Blake sang an entire verse, in key, to the amazement of Simone and the audience. When Simone questioned how she knew the lyrics, Blake said, "I was a big fan of your mother’s." And there was a moment, just a moment, where Simone saw Blake and Blake saw Simone and we all welled up at the colorless world of loving music and recognizing boldness.
This is a week for discoveries and remembrances and celebrations of the perseverance and joy and tolerance, and lack thereof, of each other, our commonalities and beautiful flawed differences. Don’t miss out. Find a ticket to Townie Tuesday or Best of Fest if nothing else, and be reminded why stories always matter. Especially the messy ones, that don’t always have happy endings. Or beginnings or middles. But they allow us to access the myriad of feelings we often keep at bay. Don’t miss your chance to dance. Any day for the next ten, including the next two Sundays in the Park…
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the organization that provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.