What Happened, Miss Simone?

 

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Liz Garbus’s slick, accomplished biography of the high priestess of soul, Nina Simone.

 

 

The Miss Simone in question is Nina Simone, the high priestess of soul, and many other things besides. The title takes its name from the question posed by none other than Maya Angelou: “Miss Simone, you are idolized, even loved, by millions now. But what happened, Miss Simone?” In this accomplished film from the celebrated documentarian Liz Garbus (Bobby Fischer Against the World, Killing in the Name, Love Marilyn), we discover exactly what happened to the celebrated voice and bravura pianist whose life didn’t go exactly as planned.

 

What Happened Miss Simone

 

With in-depth analyses from the film’s executive producer Lisa Simone Kelly (the singer’s only daughter), Nina’s loyal guitarist and friend Al Schackman and various intimates and colleagues, the film paints a comprehensive portrait of this remarkable woman. Initially determined to become the first black classical pianist to play Carnegie Hall, the budding musician from North Carolina found that in order to make a living she also had to sing – and therein lay her abiding popularity. With songs like ‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’ and ‘I Put a Spell On You,’ Nina Simone carved her place in posterity, while becoming equally famous for her outspoken views and association with Martin Luther King and more militant advocates of the Civil Rights Movement.

 

The documentary is packed with forthright interviews with the singer herself, numerous performances and previously unreleased archive footage, along with newsreel clips describing the times in which she flourished. She certainly makes an engrossing subject, with her frightening advocacy of violence in addition to her extraordinary musical talent. And behind almost every professional move and personal nuance was her husband and manager Andrew Stroud who, she claims, regularly beat her, raped her and dominated her emotional life, even when she professed her love for him and hoped that better times lay ahead. Candidly, Lisa Simone says of her parents, “I think they were both nuts.” In the end Lisa’s mother left everything behind to move to Liberia, and let her career slide, resulting in financial difficulties and estrangement from her daughter and her fans. A reliance on medication followed, a shift that ameliorated her mood swings but threatened to disable her motor skills.

 

One may argue that Nina Simone’s descent was not as tragic as that of Billie Holiday or Amy Winehouse, but it’s a story that is nevertheless pitted with sadness and high drama. But it’s the singer herself – both on stage and in her candid revelations – that makes Liz Garbus’s documentary so compelling.

 

JAMES CAMERON-WILSON

 

Featuring  Nina Simone, Lisa Simone Kelly, Al Schackman, Andrew Stroud, Stanley Crouch, Gerrit De Bruin, Dick Gregory, Hugh Hefner, Ambassador Attallah Shabazz, Ilyasah Shabazz.

 

Dir Liz Garbus, Pro Liz Garbus, Amy Hobby, Jayson Jackson and Justin Wilkes, Ex Pro Lisa Simone Kelly, Ph Igor Martinovic, Pro Des Markus Kirschner, Ed Joshua L. Pearson, Costumes Rebecca Luke.

 

RadicalMedia-Netflix.

101 mins. USA. 2015. Rel: 24 June 2015 (USA). Cert. 15.