What Happened, Miss Simone?
Directed by Liz Garbus
Opens June 26
Even fans of Nina Simone will likely learn some new things about her in What Happened, Miss Simone?, and those who had never heard her name will have a hard time forgetting it after seeing this slow-burning documentary.
As honest as its subject, the film captures the ferocious talent and charisma that was the subject of Simone’s husband and manager Andy Stroud’s documentary, Nina Simone Great Performances: College Concerts and Interviews. But, unlike Stroud’s film, this one also explores the dark side of Simone’s story. The bipolar disorder with which she was diagnosed late in life no doubt accounts for some of the violence and paranoia that caused her to become a bitter and angry recluse, but director Liz Garbus also addresses the role played by racism. Trained from early childhood as a classical pianist when black people were unheard of in that field, Simone grew up a social outcast, out of place among both blacks and whites. Then the career for which she had sacrificed so much rejected her and she was forced to sing and play popular music, a form she considered inferior.
That shift may have felt like a burden to Simone, but it was a gift to a growing cohort of fans who were looking for emotional depth and political content in their music. “Sometimes I sound like gravel and sometimes I sound like coffee and cream,” she says of her voice, and the songs she sang almost always became paeans to black pride or testaments to suffering. One in particular, her interpretation of “Ain’t Got No” from Hair, which plays in full in the film, is a thrilling revelation.
Despite its straightforward, birth-to-death chronology and heavy reliance on a conventional mixture of talking heads and archival footage, What Happened, Miss Simone? pulses with its subject’s abundant life force, often running clips of her performances long enough to include whole songs or lingering on close-ups of her majestic, expressive face, a Yoruba carving come to life, as she holds one of her intense, even intimidating silences in concert. Her personal history is recounted mainly in her own words, in excerpts from interviews, from her diary and from letters she wrote. Supplementary interviews also go deep and straight to the point, coming from people who knew and loved her well like her loyal but clear-eyed daughter Lisa, her longtime sideman Al Schackman, and Malcolm X’s oldest daughter, Ambassador Shabazz.
The Shabazzes lived next door to Simone and her family in Mount Vernon during the height of Simone’s career. The two households intertwined, almost becoming one while hosting a wealth of other artists and political leaders at the center of the Black Power movement that Simone both fueled and was fed by. In performance and interview clips, the film shows her embodying the pride and hope of that movement’s early days, incorporating sinuous African hip moves into her dancing or serenading the few black students at the college where she’s giving a concert with her triumphal anthem, “Young Gifted and Black.” Even that movement failed in the end, in her eyes, leaving things no better than they had been. She regrets having become so identified with the movement, convinced that she too has become irrelevant, and it’s true that she is not well known now. This documentary may earn her some of the attention she deserves.