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What Happened, Miss Simone? : Liz Garbus’ documentary in review

Award-winning director Liz Garbus has made a compelling, if sometimes troubling, documentary about a compelling and troubling figure—the talented and increasingly iconic performer, Nina Simone. The title, What Happened, Miss Simone?, comes from an essay that Maya Angelou wrote in 1970. In the opening seconds of the film, excerpts from Angelou’s words appear: “Miss Simone, you are idolized, even loved, by millions now. But what happened, Miss Simone?”

That passage and the opening segment of What Happened—which juxtaposes Simone’s strange behavior at a concert at the Montreux Jazz Festival to “Eight Years Earlier” and an interview and vibrant performance she gave in 1968—suggest that this may be a “typical” celebrity biopic documenting the ascent and descent of a gifted yet tortured star. However, at its best, What Happened, Miss Simone? asks questions that prove to be both much more important and interesting. “What happened” is the frame through which Garbus explores how a classically-trained pianist produced an enormous catalogue of music, from love songs to political anthems, Beatles to Bob Dylan, folk to jazz. The film considers why Simone, who began her career in the late 1950s to sing popular music in her unforgettable baritone voice and who was “not allowed to mention anything racial” in her house growing up, gave 1960s black activists some of the most politically engaged music that the movement had. Garbus also asks what happened when Simone’s genius and commitment to black freedom converged with decades of mental illness. What happened, in other words, when a black woman dared to question white supremacy, envisioned freedom, sought love and sexual pleasure, and wanted both commercial success and political commitment at a moment when the United States could not accommodate these desires and demands. These are the questions that animate What Happened, Miss Simone? and make it a mesmerizing portrait of a figure who, precisely because she refused to fit herself into conventional categories, for too long fell outside of the stories we tell about this era.

Garbus allows Simone to tell her own story as much as possible and relies on performances as one important way to do so. We see 26-year-old Simone in 1959 on Hugh Hefner’s (short-lived) television series, Playboy Penthouse, where she performed her first big hit, “I Loves You Porgy,” alongside Hefner and the all-white patrons of his television penthouse. In 1963, Simone realized a lifelong dream when she gave a concert at Carnegie Hall (though she bemoaned the fact that she was not performing Bach). Two years later, Simone performed the incendiary “Mississippi Goddam” on a makeshift stage for 40,000 protesters after the Selma to Montgomery march. The film concludes with Simone’s performance of “My Baby Just Cares for Me” in the early 1990s, after she’d been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was taking the correct medication; with the help of friends and Chanel—which used the song in an advertising campaign—Simone made a comeback after years of mental illness and relative obscurity.

Ruth Feldstein - Nina Simone (2)
“Nina Simone, 1965” by Dutch National Archives. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Garbus intercuts the many priceless performances with still photos, Simone’s voice from interviews, and scans of handwritten letters and diary entries. The film also refreshingly eschews the “talking heads” approach in which “experts” tell us what to think from their positions of authority. Instead, most of the other voices and “characters” in What Happened are those who lived alongside Simone through these years. This device often works beautifully. Early in the film we “meet” Al Schackman, the guitarist who started playing with Simone in 1957. As he talks about their “telepathic relationship” on stage—she never looked at him or told him what song or what key she would play in before their first show—we see them performing together and hear his explanation of how “before you knew it we were just weaving in and out.” As her singing voice crescendos, he describes her ability to make any piece her own, “morphing” it into “her experience.” We then get her perspective: “I was interested in conveying an emotional message… so sometimes I sound like gravel and sometimes I sound like coffee and cream.” In another section, we see Simone’s performance of “Ain’t Got No, I Got Life” (from the musical Hair) alongside her affirmations about the importance of black history and black identity. This clip showcases Simone’s ability to cover other music, anticipating, perhaps, the mash-ups of today; taken together, the interview and performance transform these melodies associated with a white-dominated counterculture into a ballad for black power.

But the effort to capture all the possible layers of “what happened” to Nina Simone has trade-offs. Quite simply, What Happened is very packed. It’s not always clear when different events took place. Garbus seldom includes dates to accompany Simone’s voice-overs, nor do we know who is asking the interview questions that we hear at some points.

Even more, Garbus’ method confers a great deal of authority on her non-expert narrators. The role that Simone’s ex-husband, Andy Stroud, plays in What Happened is particularly problematic. On the one hand, it is a great gift that Stroud—a former New York City police detective who became Simone’s manager after their marriage and who has long avoided public attention—speaks so freely. But the casualness with which he discusses his physical and emotional abuse of Simone is unnerving to say the least, and at times he equates her emotional illness with her radical politics. What are we to make of his assertions that he was always pushing for commercial success but that Simone got “sidetracked” by politics—even though, he says derisively, she still wanted nice things, which is why he “promised her that she was going to be a rich black bitch.”

Their daughter, Lisa Simone Kelley (executive producer and herself subject to abuse from Simone in the 1970s), is integral to What Happened and implicitly props her father up when she acknowledges his abuse but declares that her parents “were both nuts” and questions her mother for staying in an abusive relationship. Stroud’s descriptions of escorting Simone to the piano when she was struggling, taking her to psychiatrists when she was unwell, and listening to how “extreme terrorist militants” were “influencing her” become a kind of evidence that he was a concerned husband who had her best interests and career in mind; this narrative focus downplays the abuse that accompanied Stroud’s apparent concern.

Garbus may be asking her viewers to judge these “witnesses” as we make sense of the nexus of genius and mental illness in Nina Simone—to listen, weigh in, assess, and push back, rather than take everything that everyone says at face value. But it’s not a given that everyone will do that and sections of the film depict an abusive relationship in ways that pathologize Simone and her politics. This is not to say that What Happened does not offer other perspectives; Attalah Shabbaz, for example, Malcolm X’s daughter, notes that participating in black activism in the 1960s “rendered chaos in any individual’s [life]. People sacrificed sanity, well-being, life… Nina Simone was a free spirit in an era that didn’t really appreciate a woman’s genius. So what does that do to a family?” But this insight contrasts with the competing notion that Simone was emotionally unstable and therefore militant in pursuit of black freedom.

Still, with its beautiful weaving together of the professional, personal, and political dimensions of Simone’s life and its inspiring recovery of voices, What Happened, Miss Simone? will surely be the definitive source against which other accounts of Simone’s life are measured. Certainly, it is a researcher’s dream come true. Garbus has unearthed a treasure trove of riveting material; one can only hope that the DVD includes “extras”—the clips from the cutting room floor that didn’t make it in. Ultimately, the lurking question of What Happened, Miss Simone? is filled with devastating poignancy. What happened that the stars aligned so that Simone’s talents could be a voice that inspired and continues to inspire? What happened that she could be such a cogent voice for change and radical politics, well before “black power” was a phrase that people used? What happened that a black woman, who suffered so very much in her own life, could affirm black female power and racial liberation in the myriad and unforgettable ways that she did? We may not have answers, but we can be grateful that Nina Simone continues to inspire, educate, and yes, entertain.

Image Credit: “nina4” by GLinG GLoMo. CC BY NC-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

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