On stage Nina Simone was known for her utterly free, uninhibited musical expression, which enthralled audiences and attracted life-long fans. But amid the violent, haunting, and senseless day-to-day of the civil rights era in 1960s America, Simone struggled to reconcile her artistic identity and ambition with her devotion to a movement. Culled from hours of autobiographical tapes, this new film unveils the unmitigated ego of a brilliant artist and the absurdities of her time. At the height of her fame Simone walked away from her family, country, career and fans, to move to Liberia and give up performing. The story of her life leading up to that event poses the question, 'how does royalty stomp around in the mud and still walk with grace?'
An Engaging Documentary About Soul's National Treasure
Nina Simone is a national treasure. Don't lump her together with the Arethas, the Donnas, the Esthers; she was a soul singer of tremendous originality and personality. She didn't have to enthusiastically remind a man to r-e-s-p-e-c-t her, to rely on anybody besides herself to let her potent baritone shake the bodies of the public — whether a song she shared with the world was written by a pop professional or her and herself alone, Simone's voice never allowed, and still doesn't allow, for casual listening. You want to jump up and find a pair of expensive soundproof headphones just so you can absorb the stealth of her voice and her Baby Grand. Nothing can compare.
"What Happened, Miss Simone?", directed by documentarian Liz Garbus, captures everything most adored about Simone and the things that made her a particularly flawed human. There are plenty of moments left for us to sit back and let chills creep up our arm through astonishing concert footage, but there are also moments that let it be known that Simone, though a national treasure, was a woman continuously suffering with inner demons left untouched throughout most of her career.
New aspects of her complicated life are brought to us through several interviews, mostly with her daughter (who drops a bomb by informing us that after the dissolution of Simone's marriage to her father did she become an abusive wrecking ball). The film goes all the way back to Simone's lonely childhood, in which she dedicated most of her time to her demanding classical piano career, to her final years as a performer. What happened in- between is much more compelling than I ever expected; I knew that Simone began as a crooner in the diva category, eventually turning her attention to Civil Rights (as evidenced by remarkable songs such as "Mississippi Goddam" and "Strange Fruit"), but I didn't realize how much she suffered in her life. She was an undiagnosed manic depressive for the majority of her career. Her husband/manager hit her on a regular basis. She almost faded into homelessness after her mental disorders completely took over in the 1970s.
"What Happened, Miss Simone" is such a good documentary because it as much idolizes Simone as it does sees her at a ground level; some documentaries view their subject as a star, never slowing down to cover the details that might make them look bad. But Garbus' knack for balancing wonder with sorrow (highs and lows are at the most shattering during Simone's performance at the 1976 Montreux Jazz Festival and her daughter's admission that she was suicidal because of Simone's abuse as a teenager) is supreme, making for a well-rounded doc both informational and unglamorous. It represents Simone for who she really was, and though I would prefer a potential feature length, perhaps focusing on a particularly harrowing point in her life, "What Happened, Miss Simone" goes over everything we could ever want to know about Simone. There's just a feeling of unplaceable skimpiness, as though Garbus wanted to make an on screen biography, paying more attention to some things than others. But I can hardly complain — I liked Simone then, and I like her even more now. Presently, however, I feel like I understand her. No longer can I listen to my favorite Simone LP, "Pastel Blues", in the same way.
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