This Liz Garbus-directed documentary on the life of Nina Simone is a powerful and honest piece of work, very difficult at times to take (such intensity, such sadness), with incredible live footage of Nina Simone performing (some of it never before seen seen), as well as clips of interviews with Simone, throughout her life. Simone’s own voice leads us through it, telling us why she did this, what she felt, what was really going on … Additionally, at times there are floating images of Simone’s journals, scratched onto hotel stationery, the bleak and angry words filling the screen.
A difficult woman, a woman who had such depth of feeling, such rage, that life was never easy for her. The rage that ate her up, the rage that made life so unbearable for her, also made her write “Mississippi GODDAM”, a song that went off like a bomb in the civil-rights movement. People couldn’t believe she had actually SAID it. Even her fellow black musicians (interviewed for the documentary) were amazed at her courage to come out and SAY that.
Simone’s songs became more and more radical (she did not go for Martin Luther King’s brand of civil disobedience, stating: “I am NOT non-violent.” She said she was happy she didn’t know how to shoot a gun because “I am sure I would be a murderer”), and there’s footage of her at a concert/rally screaming at the crowd that she’s ready to kill to get what she wants, and everyone screaming back that they were ready to kill too. Booking agents, TV producers, events producers … all of them saw shit like that and stopped inviting her to perform.
Her politics hurt her career. Everyone who knows anything about Nina Simone knows this story, knows her childhood dream of being the first black classical pianist to play Carnegie Hall… and also knows her phenomenal songbook by heart. Always with Nina Simone, you get the sense of life being a mixed-bag. Triumph tempered by loss. Happiness tempered by rage. That’s what you hear in her music too.
Near the end of her life, she said in an interview, with that sadness you always felt in Simone, “I wish I had been a classical pianist.” It’s devastating because … my God, her career was so amazing – how much she has given to so many with her songs, her voice, her arrangements, her piano playing … but it was classical music that was her first love, classical music that showed her a way out, yanked her up out of her situation when she was a kid – thanks to a white lady who gave her SERIOUS piano lessons for years for free and who introduced her to Bach – and all the other great composers. Bach was the great comforter of Simone’s life. When Simone finally did play Carnegie Hall in 1963, she called her mother and said sadly, “Well, I’m playing Carnegie Hall. But I won’t be playing Bach.” This just makes me want to cry, but it is also what is so beautiful and so unique about Nina Simone.)
Simone’s daughter helped produce the documentary, and is also interviewed throughout about her very difficult childhood with two extremely volatile parents. By the time Nina Simone moved to Liberia and then France – the documentary had done such a good job of giving a feeling for the intensity of Nina Simone’s mental distress that you practically heave a sigh of relief for her. But life would never have been easy for anyone like Nina Simone, and believe me, going undiagnosed bipolar for 40 years is an experience that is pretty much beyond language’s ability to describe.
The footage of Nina Simone performing – at jazz festivals, both early and later on – is unforgettable. She has to be one of the greatest live performers of all time. There are moments where she notices someone fidgeting, or getting up to leave, and she says from the stage: “You over there. Sit down.” She needed to feel that she was creating a collective EVENT. You can hear that in the live recordings, when she talks to the audience or to her band: it was essential that everyone be on the same page.
Nina Simone was one of those rare performers who literally could not do it if she didn’t mean it.
The testimony from her friends and other musicians provide great counterpoints to her own narrative. These are all people who cared deeply about her, even when she was very difficult to love. They worried for her. The image of Nina Simone living in filth in a tiny dump in Paris, never going out, her career seemingly over, dead-broke, is heart-rending. Supportive friends with money swooped in, set her up in an apartment, took her to the doctor (that’s when she got the diagnosis), and basically removed all the pressure for having to take care of herself. “Everything is taken care of – you just get better so you can get back out onstage where you belong.” And that’s what ended up happening.
Documentaries about famous troubled artists can go wrong in a number of ways. The most common way is by focusing on all the “trouble” (craziness, drug addiction, salacious love life) … and forgetting the ART that makes us care about that person in the first place. Another way is trying desperately to EXPLAIN the artist by conflating art with biography. (“He was abandoned as a child. Therefore he became a great artist.” Many people are abandoned when they were children. Almost none of them become great artists.)
With the title of the Nina Simone documentary, you may think that the film will try to set out to explain Simone, or dwell in a voyeuristic way on the bad marriage, the mental illness, the temper tantrums. Thankfully, it does not. It shows all of it, but it contextualizes it, and it’s told through people who love her, who tried to make allowances for her, and who also (let’s not forget) were bowled over by her genius as a performer. So there’s a kindness there, but it’s also not a white-wash job or a “sanctification” project. It’s an in-depth engrossing look at the life of a great American artist.
Maya Angelou was the one to ask the question in a poem: “What happened, Miss Simone?” The documentary shows us, without diminishing her as an artist.
You hold your breath watching those live performances. It’s a high-wire act of raw honesty and sheer musical virtuosity.
What Happened, Miss Simone? is currently streaming on Netflix.