“I’m tired,” says Nina Simone in Liz Garbus’ What Happened, Miss Simone?. “You don’t know what I mean,” she adds before playing the piano. The 2015 documentary, distributed by Netflix, deals with the almost cold-bloodedly complicated singer and activist. It frames itself as an exploration rather than an answer to the titular question, which is both frustrating and fascinating.
Garbus does take the formulaic road through the life of Simone, using interviews to fill in the details and sprucing up the proceedings with some performance footage. Simone’s daughter Lisa Simone Kelly charts the most emotional course, moving from affection to anger and back again as she contends with the complicated portrait of her mother.
The documentary begins with astounding footage of Simone staring down her audience before breaking into a smile and presenting her song. The picture ventures through her early life, exploring her affection for classical music and her desires to become the first black classical pianist. Born Eunice Waymon, she changed her name to ensure her mother wouldn’t know she started to play in nightclubs.
Fame followed as the sixth child of a preacher recorded music, including the big hit “I Loves You, Porgy.” As the political climate heated up, she became more interested in civil rights. Following the Birmingham church bombing in 1963, she put out “Mississippi Goddam” and became unapologetic in her support of social causes. This cost her popularity over the long haul.
Without question, the tale of Simone is a difficult one. She was a true artist and that’s apparent, but the complications behind the scenes make can make for some rather seedy fare. What Happened, Miss Simone? resists going the full tabloid route, choosing instead to focus on the “why” questions behind the much-publicized volatility.
Through a selection of interviews with Simone that were recorded throughout her career, Garbus pieces together a typical documentary puzzle. The brutal honest of the subject makes these portions fascinating and the picture deals them into the pile with other snippets from live performances, almost having Simone tell her story in her own words.
Excerpts from letters are also used, bringing to light the dark periods of Simone’s life. The audience hears of her volatile marriage to police detective Andrew Stroud, whose designs on her career turn violent. His abusive behaviour is recounted by Kelly, who details one particular incident inside a car. Stroud was also none too pleased by Simone’s foray into civil rights, seeing it as a pointless endeavour.
But whether or not the undertaking pushed up much green was beside the point for the singer, who actually saw the civil rights movement of Martin Luther King, Jr. as too slow. She reportedly told him that she didn’t see herself as non-violent, a point she stresses in a later scene when she’s shown rallying a crowd by reading from a David Nelson poem.
Naturally, asking an audience if they’re ready to “kill if necessary” is going to put a damper on one’s career in popular music. It’s hard to imagine Ariana Grande calling down such hellfire before her crowd and sticking around to tell the tale, but Simone was an artist. And it’s that artistry that gave way to such explosiveness, the documentary confirms.
Simone did have some success following her civil rights support, including the songs “Backlash Blues” as written by Langston Hughes and “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” But the hits weren’t coming and Simone left the United States. She refused to pay taxes (as protest for the Vietnam War, in part) and became more and more erratic off-stage. It is here that Kelly recalls her mother’s abuse.
Where does Simone’s legacy lie? That’s a good question. She was a polarizing figure and she refused to compromise, for the most part. She was open with interviewers and with her audiences, which renders her lack of frankness with herself all the more tragic. What Happened, Miss Simone? delves deep, but it also discovers an artist whose life doesn’t hold many answers. But man, does it ever hold some power.