A forgotten figure of Brazil’s Swinging ’60s gets his due in “Simonal – No One Knows How Tough It Was.” Though relatively little-known outside South America, titular entertainer was hugely popular as a singer and TV personality throughout the decade, until complicated personal and political factors induced a steep fall from grace. The rags-to-riches arc is impressive, but the most compelling moments in this posthumous biographical tribute are performance clips that reveal charisma-laden Simonal at the exhilarating height of his powers. Extent of tube and DVD exposure will depend on the subject’s residual fame in various territories.
Self-described as born “poor, black and ugly” (in fact, his looks were quite televisually handsome), housemaid’s son Wilson Simonal rose to fame on Brazil’s bossa nova wave. His “rascal style” was marked by a taste for more diverse, rock-leaning sounds, jazzy rhythmic phrasing and mocking humor.
But amid the era’s queasy mix of party-heartiness and military-junta repression, some found the phenom of a high-living, high-profile black distasteful. Conservative racism on one hand, and liberals who considered him a frivolous tool of the establishment on another, turned what should have been a minor scandal (involving an assault on his accountant) into a career-killing fiasco. It got Simonal imprisoned, then unofficially blacklisted. He spent remaining decades struggling to clear his name and regain an audience.
Though paucity of interview footage (Simonal died in 2000) leaves the man behind the megastar a bit of a cipher, “No One Knows How Tough It Was” fills in narrative gaps with a host of latter-day commentators, including former colleagues and two sons (both now successful musicians in their own right). One notable celeb interviewee is soccer great Pele, a close friend who relates a memorable story limning the breadth of Simonal’s pre-fall ego.
Indisputable highlights here, however, are those capturing headliner at work. Famed for his ability to effortlessly manipulate a crowd (usually into complicated sing-alongs), he delights in his usual mode of dance and novelty tunes. But two surprisingly confrontational numbers about racial injustice belie the performer’s apolitical rep, while the full glory of his vocal chops are revealed when he more than holds his own with jazz divinity Sarah Vaughn on a breathtaking “Shadow of Your Smile” duet.
Sharply assembled docu by a team of three first-time feature directors incorporates nifty pop-art animation to heighten the ’60s mood.