Festival Review: What Happened, Miss Simone (2015)

What Happened Miss Simone

Pieced together out of delicious archive footage, interviews and diaries, Liz Garbus’ What Happened, Miss Simone? makes a soul-stirring melody out of one woman’s blues.

Backlash Blues

by Mark Wilshin

What Happened, Miss Simone?

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Taking its title from a 1970 Redbook article by Maya Angelou Nina Simone: High Priestess Of Soul, Liz Garbus’ What Happened, Miss Simone? charts the rise, fall and rise again of Eunice Waymon, who as a young girl dreamed of becoming America’s first black classical pianist, and took the pseudonym Nina Simone to prevent her mother from finding out she was making ends meet by playing “the devil’s music” in bars. Like Garbus’ previous film Love, Marilyn, What Happened, Miss Simone? builds from Nina Simone’s personal diaries, as she describes her deep love for husband and manager Andrew Stroud, her involvement in the civil rights movement, motherhood, overwork and the violent abuse she suffered at her husband’s hands. Each moment too is punctuated by a song, from the highs of My Baby Just Cares For Me to the anger and outrage of Mississippi Goddam and Young, Gifted And Black to the haunting concert rendition of Stars during her first come-back concert at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1976. And it’s a moving portrait of the woman rejected by the Curtis Institute for being black, emancipated by the civil rights movement but also destroyed by it, her world turned upside down by the possibility of freedom while watching her friends and fellow activists destroyed one by one, including the King Of Love himself, the rejection of her black power music by radio stations, broadcasters and record labels, the beatings and her descent into manic depression and her lonely desperation, working clubs in Paris for a couple of hundred bucks. Nobody knows you when you’re down and out, indeed. What’s perhaps most shocking is that her emancipation appears restricted to being black rather than a woman, suffering the beatings with dependent obedience. But piecing together Nina Simone’s story in her own words with archive footage that converts the singer into an icon, a freedom fighter and a tragic heroine, Liz Garbus’ What Happened, Miss Simone? is a beautiful hymn to a mighty lady singing the blues.

What Happened, Miss Simone? is now showing at the 65th Berlin Film Festival

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