Charting the rise, fall and rise again of Nina Simone, Liz Garbus’s What Happened, Miss Simone? creates an icon of the High Priestess of Soul.
I Shall Be Releasedby Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Liz Garbus has an uncanny knack for surprise. Taking what we thought was achingly familiar and turning it into a startlingly unexpected story, Garbus has already uncovered the woman behind the most famous icon of female beauty with Love, Marilyn before now laying bare the High Priestess of Soul with What Happened, Miss Simone? Without her previous film’s artistic artifice of Hollywood women reading Monroe’s letters, What Happened, Miss Simone is unapologetically to the point, much like its heroine. But charting the rise and fall of Nina Simone through archive footage, private letters and interviews – from her upbringing as a preacher’s daughter in North Carolina to her retirement in Liberia and her freefall through the seediest nightclubs of Paris – What Happened, Miss Simone? is the tale of a woman on the ascendant through the Civil Rights movement of the Sixties but who rapidly comes unstuck during peacetime.
Growing up in the Deep South, Eunice Waymon only had one dream – to become America’s first black classical pianist. But rejected by the Curtis Institute (for being black), she was forced to play “the devil’s music” in jazz bars in order to make ends meet, changing her name to Nina Simone (niña a nickname given to her by her then boyfriend and Simone after watching Simone Signoret in Casque d’Or) to prevent her mother from finding out. With her unique voice and style, Simone was catapulted into fame (if not fortune) from her first hit single I Loves You, Porgy. But for her, pop music was little more than a means of funding her classical piano studies. Until, that is, the racist attacks in Birmingham, Alabama, after which Simone recorded and released Mississippi Goddam – a controversial civil rights plea, smashed and boycotted by countless radio stations. An activist in the movement, Simone performed songs from Backlash Blues to I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free at meetings and marches until 1968 when the King Of Love was killed. Overworked, exhausted, abused by her husband and manager, former police detective Andrew Stroud, and desperately watching her political family disappear one by one, Simone flees the United States for Barbados and then Liberia before settling in France. But penniless and out of favour, it’s no easy ride.
The first documentary to be supported by Nina Simone’s estate and family, What Happened, Miss Simone? is no easy story to tell. But armed with Simone’s private letters, talking-head interviews with, among others, Simone and Stroud’s daughter (and the film’s executive producer) as well as rare, archive footage, Liz Garbus creates a carefully curated narrative that walks the line between activist and victim. And while the film opens with excerpts from Nina Simone’s set at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1976, fallen from grace and beleaguering her audience with angry silences and bitter reproaches, there’s no doubt What Happened, Miss Simone? gives the songstress due credit for the role she played during a pivotal moment in the black history of the United States. Taking its title from a 1970 Redbook article by Maya Angelou, What Happened, Miss Simone? shines a light on Simone’s erudite interviews about black oppression, which are in fact some of the film’s best scenes.
What makes Garbus’ documentary so fascinating though is this contradictory epoch of liberation that sees Simone at the forefront of the Civil Rights movement while bearing violent beatings at home at the hands of her husband. Fascinating, but flawed. For where What Happened, Miss Simone? comes a little unstuck is in the struggle for female emancipation, as the quid-pro-quo of marriage, motherhood and divorce remain frustratingly obscure behind a veil of inoffensive even-handedness. And while the film does its best not to vilify either side, this personal fight for liberation, by its sheer impossibility, becomes strangely more potent than her engagement in the political fight for black power. For just as Garbus’ bio-doc doesn’t quite conjure up the superhuman wherewithal required of Simone to climb out of her doldrums of manic depression and debt that see her playing seedy nightclubs for a couple of hundred bucks, What Happened, Miss Simone? can’t quite navigate the unbreakable ties that bind Simone to her husband and prevent her from leaving.
But as each chapter in Nina Simone’s life takes on a soundtrack of its own, What Happened, Miss Simone? simply revels in the music, revealing the Sixties black-and-white pop performance behind Work Song or delighting in the electrifying concert performance of Stars. And perhaps more than civil rights, feminism or fortune, it was music that provided the constant in Nina Simone’s life – a temple that the High Priestess of Soul could never leave and that Liz Garbus’ wonderful What Happened, Miss Simone? immortalises in images. In all of her glorious, iconic complexity.
What Happened, Miss Simone is released on 26th June 2015 in the UK