Sundance 2015 Review: Portraits of Artists

Happy Friday all! Thank the cinematic gods, but my Sundance reviews are finally winding down. Today, I am featuring a couple of artist-related biographies I had the pleasure of watching last month. Unlike some of the narrative features I have covered, these docs are soon to be available to a wide audience.

Enjoy and let me know what you think!



I may have mentioned this before, but big screen or small, I really like biographical documentaries. This year at Sundance provided me with a double bill of portraits of talented, yet enigmatic in many ways, personalities from the world of music and film.


Listen to Me Marlon (directed by Stevan Riley)

As much as I like the work of Marlon Brando, the man himself has equally fascinated me. I mean there is so much there to wonder about and discover. And love him or hate him, he left a legacy for fans such as me to chew on.

For me, it all started while I was in the summer of 1996. In school and with limited entertainment options, I was forced to find other means of passing my down time. It is then that I picked up his 1994 autobiography, Songs My Mother Taught Me (collaborated with Robert Lindsey). I loved this voluminous, VERY descriptive account of the span of his life. That said, one does end up wondering how much of what he is telling us is actual, concrete fact and how much is an invention or embellishment of what was. Either way, it is a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Ever since then, I have been hooked, as evidenced nearly a decade later, when I attended a panel discussion where the likes of Arthur Penn and Eli Wallach discussed Brando’s work and impact on the world. It was certainly a night to remember.

Fast forward to the present day and here we are with a documentary that literally speaks for itself. Hundreds of hours of audio tapes and personal home videos and photographs have been condensed into a 95-minute personal and professional scrapbook of sorts.

Overall, the film works, save for what can only be best described as “Max Headroom” moments – a digitized rendering of Brando’s head narrating. At times, this really took me out of the story.

Listen to Me Marlon will air on the Showtime network (coming soon).

Marlon Brando


What Happened, Miss Simone? (directed by Liz Garbus)

A very intimate and informative profile of the iconic singer/pianist, What Happened, Miss Simone? traces Simone’s life from the backwoods of North Carolina to dimming lights of Paris.

What happens in between is a revealing and sometimes shocking play of triumphs, tragedies and controversies. I never considered myself super knowledgeable about the woman, but I am familiar with a fair portion of her musical catalog. So believe me when I tell you that this film was a real revelation for me. The depths of what I did not know about her was astonishing – from her prodigious beginnings through to her successes and her ardent political activism. I think my favorite fun fact is that for several of her halcyon years, she lived in my hometown of Mount Vernon (NY).

While there is a sampling of her music and performances littered throughout the 102-minute film, it is the roller coaster of her life that captures you as a viewer. Through archived audio and video footage, interviews with family and friends and passages taken straight out of her private diary, this is a rare glimpse at the eccentricities and personal demons that would ultimately for a time, consume this one of a kind talent.

Also to the film’s credit, Simone’s daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly as an Executive Producer. I’ll leave it at that.

What Happened, Miss Simone? is scheduled for release on Netflix this spring.

Nina Simone


Image credit: The Sundance Institute

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