What Happened, Miss Simone? takes an unflinching look at the sometimes troubled life and complex legacy of the singer, pianist and civil rights activist. At one point in her career, Nina Simone was a celebrated performer playing Carnegie Hall, but fast-forward, and she’s singing in dive bars in Paris for a couple of hundred dollars a night. What happened along the way is what the film does a masterful job of portraying.
The title What Happened, Miss Simone? comes from Maya Angelou’s poem “The Singer Will Not Sing.” Director Liz Garbus does a great job engaging the audience and bringing Simone to life. Garbus, who is white, has tackled black subjects before, including directing the film The Execution of Wanda Jean. With the controversy surrounding the Nina Simone biopic starring Zoe Saldana, it is important to note that this documentary from Netflix shows the real Nina Simone, not a whitewashed version.
Through the use of rare archival footage and never-before-released recordings, Garbus lets Simone tell her own story in her own words. Before we even get to the opening credits, we see a long clip of Simone performing at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1976 as part of her comeback. Some may wish there had been more editing, but because the filmmaker wants her audience to know the real Simone, she lets it play on for so long that you can see the singer’s mood and facial expressions change significantly. That in itself tells an important story about how she sees herself at the time. Simone’s life was so complex that it seems Garbus had no choice but to get into that detail. While some might have wished she had sped things up, a complicated subject deserves this treatment.
Besides hearing firsthand from Simone, we also hear her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, executive producer of the film. The actress and singer goes into detail about life with her famous mother. We learn it was a roller coaster of emotion from great to awful and everything in between. The good times included family parties in Mount Vernon, N.Y., with neighbors such as the Shabazzes and friends such as Langston Hughes and Lorraine Hansberry. All shown in wonderful detail through photos and film, including a clip of Simone singing “To Be Young Gifted and Black.” The bad times included Simone leaving her daughter behind when she moved to Liberia after becoming frustrated with the United States. The relocation also stalled her musical career.
Simone’s personal notes also serve as a window into her soul. The documentary shows us how she was tormented by demons, including mental illness that led to violent and erratic behavior. It is heartbreaking to see her downward spiral captured on film, but it also answers the question of what happened to her. Along the way it’s a great ride, especially when we see Simone transformed into a civil rights activist. Her famous concert during the Selma-to-Montgomery march, where she sang “Mississippi Goddam,” is shown. Then, after Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated, we see her advocate for social change by any means necessary.
If Simone were alive today singing songs such as “Ferguson Goddam” instead of “Mississippi Goddam,” she might be branded an angry black woman as Shonda Rhimes has been. Instead, the film shows us Simone’s portrayal during the 1960s as a rebel and instigator, a treatment that ultimately hurt her career.
It was fitting that at the end of the movie’s premiere on the first night of the Sundance Film Festival, John Legend performed three songs in honor of Simone. Clearly, she has influenced Legend and others who look at activism as part of their responsibility as performers. In the end, we learn that what happened is that Nina Simone lived as she believed she should, with regrets along the way.