Miss Simone belongs in that rare breed of artist, alongside Aretha, Ella, and Billie, who have such enduring influence they can simply be referred to by just their first name. This documentary, directed by Liz Garbus, is a fitting portrait of Nina’s power, music and her often difficult personal life. Indeed, whilst most documentaries of such major figures are hagiographic, valorising even their subjects’ trials and tribulations, What Happened Miss Simone? is unafraid of discussing its subject’s demons frankly and with comparatively little fanfare; it’s not the traditional romantic dichotomy of ‘suffering artist begets great art’ but more layered than that, where the personality exists to give greater context to the music without overshadowing it, allowing the viewer a different window into Nina Simone’s soul.
And what soul she had. If nothing else, Garbus’ film could have been little more than a collection of archival concert clips and it still would have been an electrifying watch. Going by the concert footage, Nina Simone onstage, even in later life when illness would take its toll, was that rarest of performers: the sort of person who could hold an audience rapt in awe and demand to be listened to. One scene, from 1976 in Montreux, shows her stopping mid-song to tell a fidgety audience member to sit down, refusing to continue until she has done so. Imagine what Nina would have done today with the plethora of mindless smartphone zombies at gigs who spend more time taking amateur shots of blur and light to instagram for likes than they do enjoying the moment.
But the film is not really about Nina’s music. It is about her life. Building the narrative largely out of archival interviews with Nina and the lucid, detailed recollections of her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, Garbus details at length her subject’s experiences; her early life as a black child in the segregated South, a prodigious pianist who took piano lessons from her white neighbours and was ostracised by both black and white communities, the former for engaging in something considered ‘white’ and the latter for the colour of her skin; her response to the civil rights movement, in particular her declared outspokenness (she declares herself as “not non-violent” and the film discusses her support for violent means of black liberation) which eventually cost her financially but gave her a cultural worth far beyond that of hits and gold records; Nina’s abuse at the hands of her husband; her move to Liberia in Africa and her own violence towards her daughter; her eventual comeback and her diagnosis as suffering from bipolar disorder.
Garbus maintains a strictly chronological line throughout, but her tackling of the tougher aspects of Nina’s life is handled with care and respect. Much of the discussion revolves around Nina’s importance as a civil rights icon but also her own demons, and how the two occasionally intersected or even collided.
Of what we are told, Nina Simone was strongly in favour of violence as a means of engendering political change and equality, a particularly relevant topic in these divisive, uncertain times where the election of Donald Trump and the horrendous epidemic of state violence wrought upon minorities in America (and across the world), suggests that the means of fighting oppression may well come into question once more.
The background and context that the film gives her means that, when she arrives at those views, we understand what might lead a person down that path, and even this is contextualised as part of a wider picture; the diagnosis of bipolar disorder later in her life suggests that part of her anger and rage, however justified, may have emanated from mental illness. The detail that Garbus gives to Nina’s role in the Civil Rights movement portrays an artist who was deeply involved with the discourse amongst the intellectuals in the movement, with its orators, artists, poets, playwrights, and thinkers, another element of an electrifying and crucial moment in the history of the US. Such a documentary is always going to be exciting on the surface, but that What Happened, Miss Simone? achieves such electrification is great testament to the excellent work Liz Garbus has done here. Highly recommended.