Nina Simone is one of those people who requires no introduction, but after viewing Liz Garbus’ stellar documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?, you might be surprised how little you knew about the outspoken songstress.
First and foremost, this is a film about love and music, specifically Simone’s love for music which seemed to go beyond just love and graduate to a fiercely symbiotic relation. Thus What Happened is also about the heartbreak and trauma Simone underwent when those things were perverted in every aspect of her life.
After an enigmatic opening which sees Simone take to the stage, stare near-violently into space then abruptly, and mysteriously introduce herself, Garbus zips back to contextualize the singer’s ominous cynicism. By any respects Simone led a fascinating life, from her humble upbringing flourished a prodigal talent in classic piano, through a fierce marriage, rocket to fame, family woes, embracing a political lifestyle, friendships with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, falling in with black radicals, collapse of her mental state, fleeing the USA, absorbing and reflecting all the shit she ever put up with, but eventual rescue by friends, and success in later life. This is a riveting documentary about a truly remarkable woman.
Simone was overwhelmingly alone. Hers was the gift of insight, understanding and this – along with other disturbances in her life- drove her to the edge. Garbus understands this implicitly, giving us unprecedented and never-before-seen access to, not just Simone’s career, process, and personal life, but arguably her very soul. Her manic depression, self-harm, and bipolar behaviour, are presented as part and parcel of her anguish towards a world torn apart by racism and greed. Yet, Garbus is wise to keep Simone’s radical, violence-inciting, behaviours at arm’s length, even when the context of the story argues them an act of desperation.
When asked in her later years about the civil rights movement she replies ‘there is no civil rights movement…they are all gone’. I wonder what she would have said about the last 12 months of American history, how she would have reacted to the continuing age of distress. If we can’t know what Simone thinks, we can at least deduce Garbus’ feelings in this bold and fascinating historical cross-section that seems preposterously well-timed.
Endearingly composed of unseen footage, personal letters and diaries, archive interviews, and intimate conversations with Simone’s colleagues and friends, What Happened, Miss Simone? Is a fantastic piece of work. Perhaps a little flashy, you can’t really blame Garbus for a little overdramatic sound editing and dramatic flair…she is writing about Nina Simone after all.
Director: Liz Garbus
Stars:James Baldwin, Stokely Carmichael, Walter Kronkite, Lisa Simone Kelly