How else to describe the life and artistry of Nina Simone? Iconoclast. Leader. Visionary. Both agent and victim to a time, class, and social life rent with injustice, trauma and brutality. As a child she dreamt of being the first black classical pianist. What she accomplished was greater than that, and ultimately, far more brutal. Nina Simone, as Liz Garbus’ documentary appears to argue, elected herself to be the vessel, the voice, of a people denied history and dignity and voices of their own. She wanted to be an agent of social change for black America, and she was not rewarded for it.
When I think of Nina Simone I am reminded of that one word, repeated, over and over again in Sinnerman. Power. But watching this documentary I’m also reminded that that very power comes at a cost. ‘What Happened, Miss Simone?’ is a very fine, if patchy work of documentary filmmaking that avoids typical hagiography for an intimate, and often tough look into the life of one of America’s greatest recording artists and Civil Rights activists.
The film takes the tried and tested narrative structure of musical documentaries, cutting Simone’s professional career into three sections. There is the ascendancy, the heroism, and the inevitable fallout. First, we see Simone as the popular singer and musician, renowned for blending the elegancy of classical piano with the emotional power of soul. Early in her career we see her performing her hit ‘I Loves You Porgy’ on Hugh Hefner’s Playboy’s Penthouse, winning accolades and being taken under the wing of manager (and later husband) Andrew Stroud.
Second, we see Simone step into her role as activist, her music taking on a fiercer, more vital mantle. Her recording of ‘Mississippi Goddam’ signals this new shift, and we are told that, after the Alabama church bombings in 1963, Simone’s voice ‘never went back.’ It is during this time that Simone becomes friends with civil rights leaders such as Dr Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, as well as writers like Langston Hughes and Lorraine Hansberry. Through voiceover clips and live recordings we can see how this period of her life was when she felt the most confident in her work and what it could do for people. ‘We will shape and mould this country or it will not be shaped or moulded at all’ she says in one defiant clip. It was this defiance and anger which would, in the words of her daughter ‘sustain her’, but would also alienate her from audiences and potentially cost her not only a livelihood, but happiness also.
Third, we see the later period of Simone’s life marked by despair, loneliness, financial trouble, and a destructive impulse that hurt both herself and those that loved her. Her association with black militancy cost her work, and the heavy blows dealt to the civil rights movement with the murders of both Dr King and Malcolm X would sap her of purpose and drive for change. There is a recording of a performance she gave the day that Dr King was assassinated in which she stops singing and breaks down listing those lost. Soon after she gives up playing piano and moves to Liberia. When she does eventually return to music, it is at a disastrous concert at Montreux. In some incredibly painful footage we see Simone appear on stage, a bizarre half-shadow of herself, glaring out at the audience while the applause awkwardly dies down. She makes a few harsh remarks that are met by nervous laughter. She begins to play, and about a minute into her song she stands up and angrily demands that an audience member sit down. That Simone should be so ferocious and short-tempered is hardly surprising to anyone who is familiar with her life and work. What is shocking about this moment is that it shows a time in the life of true isolation, and a bitter anger that, without direction, could be turned against anyone.
The film honours and pays tribute to Simone, but does not shy away from showing the darker sides of her story, whether that involves the abuses she endured or the abuses she herself inflicted on those she loved. There is some particularly unsettling interview footage with her late husband Andrew Stroud, whose somewhat blasé attitude in recalling how he came to manage and marry Simone is juxtaposed with testimonies of his savage cruelty and tendency to overwork the singer. Simone is not just a victim either though, and we are afforded some harsh insights from her daughter Lisa, who recalls how she could ‘never do anything right’ and was regularly beaten.
Ultimately, Garbus poses no real answers to her film’s tantalising premise. Instead, we are given the facts as they are presented and must decide for ourselves. This is perhaps both the strength and weakness of the film. It is all context rather than speculation, straight biography as opposed to critique. Added to which the film ends very abruptly, sadly, and all too soon. In attempting to cover the musician’s life and influence, the film feels strangely truncated and speeds along at a pace that does not leave much time for reflection. Still, at a time when there is a renewed interest in the work of Simone, we can be thankful for a biography that, while by no means attempting to dethrone the singer, does shine a new light on the troubled but brilliant artist. What happened, Miss Simone? Nina Simone happened. And we are so much better for it.