Robert Redford, John Legend and Nina Simone were all part of opening night at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, but the festival’s kickoff may end up better remembered for a deliciously raunchy and ridiculously gymnastic sex scene.
The scene came near the end of “The Bronze,” a comedy directed by Bryan Buckley, a filmmaker best known for his Super Bowl commercials. The story of a bitter gymnast trying to hang onto glory years after winning a bronze medal at the Olympics, it features an acrobatic hotel-room liason so over-the-top that it’ll no doubt give the ratings board fits, but it kept the audience at the Eccles Theater in hysterics.
The film is the brainchild of married couple Melissa Rauch and Winston Rauch, who wanted to write a film role that Melissa could play. In a post-screening Q&A, Winston said his wife’s 4’11” height inspired them to write her a role in a movie about a gymnast.
The character makes an eye-opening debut in an opening scene that involves another sex act, and she goes on to display an array of disgraceful behavior – stealing from the U.S. mail, snorting allergy medication, mocking or ignoring every single person she meets – that will certainly make her one of the most delightfully awful people on display during Sundance’s opening weekend.
The film gets predictable at times, and it certainly won’t have the shelf-life of a Sundance standout like “Whiplash” or “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” but it was amusing enough, and sharply written enough, to close opening night on a lively note.
“The Bronze” was the second movie to screen at the Eccles on Thursday, with the festivities kicking off with the Liz Garbus documentary “What Happened, Miss Simone?,” which was introduced by Sundance founder Redford and followed by John Legend performing three songs associated with Simone.
Not to put any unseemly pressure on Garbus’ film, which will be distributed by Netflix, but the last two Oscar winners in the Best Documentary Feature category, “20 Feet From Stardom” last year and “Searching for Sugar Man” the year before, were both opening-night Sundance docs.
Those were uplifting stories in which the films themselves helped supply happy endings, bringing extra attention to the forgotten singer-songwriter Rodriguez and to background singers like Lisa Fischer, Merry Clayton and Darlene Love. And in both cases, the subjects hit the campaign trail, singing for voters and helping turn their films into sensations.
But to be true to its subject, “What Happened, Miss Simone?” needed to have a real edge, to be a tough, confrontational film as well as a celebratory one. (Chiemi Kurosawa pulled off something like this with the funny and fearsomely frank “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me,” which deserved more awards-season traction than it got.)
And in fact, Garbus’ movie is tougher and darker than “Sugar Man” or “20 Feet.” Simone’s life and career have moments of real triumph, but they do not lend themselves to comfortable arcs or third-act redemptions.
The singer was trained as a classical pianist, but abandoned those dreams to sing blues, soul and jazz music, becoming popular in the early 1960s and then hurling herself headlong into the civil rights movement with songs like the scorching “Mississippi Goddam.”
She lost some of her popularity as she became more strident, but she refused to back down, and in the ‘70s left the U.S. and moved to Africa, then to Europe. Her later years are a sad tale of a faltering career, a long-undiagnosed bipolar disorder that drove her teenage daughter away and a comeback that came with a price: Medication helped her perform again, but it also put a heartbreaking deadness in her eyes.
Garbus takes a straightforward approach to Simone, letting the singer tell her own story through archival interviews. But the heart of the film, and the heart of the story, lie in the songs, and in some devastating concert sequences in the film.
Highlights include a quietly wrenching version of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” a rendition of “Mississippi Goddam” performed at Martin Luther King’s march from Selma to Montgomery, and particularly a calm, implacable, searing version of Janis Ian’s “Stars,” performed late in Simone’s career, each syllable weighted down with the weariness that came from a lifetime of speaking out and paying the price.
“How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?” Simone asks at one point in the film — and to the credit of “What Happened, Miss Simone?,” the film shows why she is an artist for these times, too.
In front of an audience that included “Selma” director Ava DuVernay, Garbus said after the screening that we needed “voices like Nina Simone today, speaking the pain and the passion of the moment that’s been building on the streets in the last six months.”
Then she introduced Legend, and the Eccles screen rose to reveal the suave singer-songwriter sitting at a grand piano on the stage. He wisely stayed away from Simone’s signature songs, performing “Lilac Wine” and “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free” before calling her “one of my favorite artists of all time.”
He then did a lovely, deeply felt version of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” – though even Legend himself would probably agree that it paled next to the profound ache in the version heard sung by Simone about an hour earlier.