Directed by: Liz Garbus
Premise: A documentary about the life of musician and civil rights activist Nina Simone.
What Works: Nina Simone is best known as a jazz musician who came the fore of American culture in the 1960s due to her skills as a pianist and her distinctive singing voice but also for the way she marshalled that talent for political purposes. The documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? covers Nina Simone’s biography from her humble roots to the height of fame with a strong emphasis on her musical work and her political activism. One of the unique aspects of Simone as a musician, and one that’s dealt with at some length in the film, is the apparent mismatch of her training and her career. Simone, who was African American, was a classically trained pianist who learned her craft under the tutelage of white instructors and excelled in playing traditional European music by the likes of J.S. Bach and Ludwig von Beethoven. However, circumstances led to her playing jazz and blues music, which was much more commercial at the time and launched her show business career. That led to Simone bringing a different musical skill set to different genres which made her distinct as a performer. As this documentary picks up on, that mixing of different cultural styles and sensibilities was a hallmark of her life. What Happened, Miss Simone? is, in part, a story about someone whose life and work had a very complex relationship with race and that complexity was enhanced by the tumultuous political background of her time. As depicted in this film, Nina Simone’s life and work changed after the 1963 Birmingham church bombing. She began writing and performing music that reflected the violence of the world around her and Simone insinuated herself among the major civil rights leaders of those days including Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcom X. She also networked with other major African American artists of the period; Langston Hughes wrote lyrics for the song “Backlash Blues” and “To Be Young Gifted and Black” was inspired by the work of Lorraine Hansberry. For her political activism, Nina Simone’s career suffered and What Happened, Miss Simone? offers a complex look at an artist struggling to comment upon the world she lives in while making a living through her craft.
What Doesn’t: The storytelling of What Happened, Miss Simone? is generally standard biographical filmmaking. The moviemakers have assembled all of this material very well but stylistically it’s within the parameters of other documentaries like it. The conventional nature of the filmmaking is just a little disappointing given the way in which Nina Simone’s music combined different musical genres and how her songs were distinguished by a unique voice. The film’s investigation of her life has one notable flaw. While covering the political turn in her music, What Happened, Miss Simone? relies on commentary from Andrew Stroud, her husband and manager. During this period, Simone became very depressed, angry, and violent and Stroud insists that this was due to her involvement with radical figures like Stokely Carmichael. There may be some truth to that but earlier in the documentary it’s revealed that Simone was a victim of domestic violence at the hands of her husband. For whatever reason, the filmmakers don’t question Stroud’s assertions or suggest that the beatings he unleashed on his wife may have had something to do with Simone’s instability and personal demons. Of course, Stroud was dead before this documentary was made (his commentary is culled from archival interviews) so there’s no way for the filmmakers to press him on it. But, like everything about Nina Simone, the truth about her anger is probably more complex than it appears.
DVD extras: The film is currently available on streaming services.
Bottom Line: What Happened, Miss Simone? is an excellent profile of the life and work of Nina Simone. The film is a suitable introduction to anyone unfamiliar with her work but it’s also a complex portrait of the interconnected cultural forces at work in an artist’s life.
Episode: #584 (February 28, 2016)