Liz Garbus’ new documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone?, consists mainly of rousing historical footage of Simone’s concerts and interviews, while paying tribute to Simone’s achievements and illuminating the struggles in her life.
Nina Simone wanted to become the first black female classical pianist to perform at Carnegie Hall. She had to settle for becoming a cultural icon and performing there as a jazz legend. Despite penning an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement and achieving great acclaim, she always regretted not making a career out of playing Bach in concert. Liz Garbus’s new documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone?, which consists mainly of rousing historical footage of Simone’s concerts and interviews, tries to compensate by paying tribute to her achievements and illuminating the struggles in her life for posterity. Filled with footage of her passionate performances, It’s a terrific introduction to and celebration of the life and many hard times of Nina Simone for the uninitiated. It’s a loving ode, and like the great Roger Ebert doc Life Itself, shows its respect for Simone by telling us both the good and the bad.
Simone’s musical dabbling was also key to her first encounters with and understanding of racism in America. When she was asked to give a recital at the local white church as a young girl, she was told her parents had to sit at the back. She refused to play unless they were sitting up front, so they were permitted, but it was a harsh introduction to the realities of the Jim Crow laws, under which her community suffered. When her career turned political — starting with the Civil Rights anthem “Mississippi Goddamn,” which she even performed at the end of the Selma march — she used her music as a platform to voice what it was to be a black woman in America, which made her a crucial player in the Civil Rights Movement while alienating other fans. “Mississippi Goddamn” was an angry song, honest and bold, especially since cuss words were outlawed from radio play at the time. Her records were returned to her, often broken, from all of the radio stations. She performs the song in the film with immense conviction. You can see the years of pain and anger bubbling up to the surface.
Eunice Waymon became Nina Simone when she was living in Atlantic City as a young adult, after spending a year at Julliard before being rejected by the Curtis Institute, essentially because she was black. To make end’s meet, she started performing at a local bar with the stage name of Nina Simone in an effort to keep her nighttime performances a secret from her disapproving family. It was there that she started singing because her boss threatened to fire her if she didn’t. She played everything from classical repertoire to show tunes to pop songs, genre-hopping in a way that would inspire her genre-crossing music.
Although fame and success afforded Simone the opportunity to meet and befriend such influencers as Malcolm X and the playwright Lorraine Hansberry (A Raisin in the Sun), the pressure to perform and entertain was unbearable. Her husband kept the business going, but he was also abusive, beating her senseless, and for years, she didn’t know how to leave him, or think to do so. She had extreme mood swings — she would later be diagnosed with bipolar disorder — and dreaded performing. She felt financially responsible for so many people, well beyond her husband and daughter, that she felt obligated to continue. But if you can believe the interviews she gave and the stories her friends tell in the film, she wasn’t happy doing it.
I’m not so sure you can. At least not entirely. For one thing, we know she had extreme moods, and the historical footage on display may just be capturing her lows. She also wasn’t always entirely in control of her mental faculties, especially in the 1970s, before she was diagnosed and medicated, and things fell apart. Considering the sheer dedication and discipline that her musical training required, and her aspirations to perform Bach, she must have gotten some joy out of it, even if it came with the pain of isolation.
The film features performances of both her rich, original compositions, like “Young, Gifted, and Black,” and her exquisite arrangements and reinterpretations of standards like “My Baby Just Cares for Me” and “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” When she performs on stage, she comes alive. She handles the piano with dexterity, sings her heart out, and carves out a niche that is entirely her own. Even when she’s playing covers, she’s found a way to own them. She lets it all hang out, much to the audience’s satisfaction, and she looks like she’s having a great release.
Although the focus is often on her lyrics and her deeply expressive voice, if you’re paying attention, there’s enormous technical proficiency on display in her piano playing: these are nuanced, complex arrangements played with rare skill.
But the film doesn’t do adequate justice to Simone’s prodigious talent as a composer, pianist, and arranger. Garbus did not interview Simone’s musical collaborators to talk about her musicianship, nor are critics or her contemporaries present to discuss how her classical training was instrumental to her songwriting and performance. She may not have become the great classical pianist that she had aspired to be, but she was a groundbreaking jazz singer-pianist, melding classical, jazz, and blues styles together. The film does a disservice to her talent and legacy by not exploring this. You know when you’re listening to Nina Simone, because nobody sounds like her.
What Happened, Miss Simone? gives Simone’s personal struggles and her role in the political discourse get their due, though we never really find out quite what happened? Living in a racist, misogynist society while suffering from mental illness proved too much even for this strong-willed feisty woman. But the thing Simone seemed to care about most gets no attention. She channeled her classical training into a new avenue, and she ought to be remembered for how she did, and how well she did it. Could Nina Simone exist, after all, had Eunice Weyman not spent years entranced by Bach? There’s more to Simone’s sound than her voice.