Published May 04, 2015Near the beginning of What Happened, Miss Simone? (screening June 26 on Netflix), Nina Simone responds to a reporter's question of what freedom means to her in a 1968 interview. After initially being playfully flustered by the query, she abruptly hones in on her answer with laser-like precision: "I'll tell you what freedom means to me," she intones authoritatively, her eyes focusing with passionate incredulity. "No fear!"
It's an encapsulation of Simone's mercurial presence, formidable and vulnerable all at once. That same complexity is noticeable in the film's opening scene, showing Simone taking the stage at the 1976 Montreux Jazz Festival after a long stage hiatus. She stands stoically, resting her hand assuredly on the piano, staring impassively as the crowd loudly applauds her until it becomes awkward, before slowly and methodically taking her seat and greeting the crowd with an exaggerated "Hello." And then she smiles inadvertently. In letting down her seemingly impregnable guard in these instances, Simone demonstrates her ability to tap deeply and truthfully into her emotional breadth at a moment's notice. Underlining her artistic sensibilities and singularity, these moments prompt questions like that of the film's title, probing what lurks below the surface.
The question, What Happened, Miss Simone? is derived from a 1970 magazine article by the late, great Maya Angelou on Simone, and it is a pertinent one for both fervent fans and those who are relative neophytes to Simone's work. Despite the fact she died in 2003, Simone is hidden in plain sight in the current zeitgeist. Kanye West, for example, has liberally sampled her several times over the duration of his now decade-deep oeuvre, and a biopic of the singer is due out later this year. Additionally, full context and explanations for Simone's late-period sojourns in Africa and Europe, as well as her battles with depression and on- and offstage volatility have eluded even some of her most ardent admirers, who may resignedly accept such issues as a consequence of musical genius.
Indeed, Simone was essentially a child musical prodigy. After showing her raw piano talent at revival church gatherings in the small North Carolina town of Tryon, Simone, then known by her birth name Eunice Waymon, was classically trained in the catalogue of Bach, Beethoven and Debussy by a white churchgoer, indirectly contributing to Simone's social isolation and disillusionment. And when she was denied entry to a prestigious music school, likely because of racial discrimination, the sting of the rejection is one she never seemingly came to terms with.
Oscar-nominated director Liz Garbus (Love, Marilyn) uses this event in What Happened Miss Simone? to unravel her undeniable artistry and troubled personal life, an uneasy intertwining that proves a constant theme in the film. So, while the reporter's question about freedom could easily have been ostensibly restricted to the '60s civil rights struggle, in which Simone was a strident voice through searing, indelible songs such as "Mississippi Goddam" and "Young, Gifted and Black," she could also have been answering a question about the disturbingly domineering relationship with her manager and husband, ex-cop Andrew Stroud, or her own mental health problems.
While the film boasts footage from stirring Simone performances and perspective into her creative singularity, it does not delve deeply into the chronology of her music. Garbus keeps an intimate focus on Simone, and the film is riveting because of it. While some of Simone's personal relationships, like her first pre-fame marriage and later relationship with the Prime Minister of Barbados, are completely omitted, What Happened, Miss Simone? is still a very impressive consideration of her complex life. Digging deep into a wealth of material made available by her estate, we are granted ample access to Simone's own voice through a rich archive of interviews, images and emotionally frank diary entries and letters.
In accordance with the theme of proximity, contemporary artists proclaiming their love for Simone's music and influence are eschewed in favour of particularly honest reflections and testimony from Simone's daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, Malcolm X's daughter Ambassador Shabazz (who grew up in a Mount Vernon house virtually next door to Simone and Stroud) and longtime bandleader Al Schackman, who frequently refers to Simone as his sister. Presenting Simone as a flawed, unique individual, Garbus derives thought-provoking answers to the film's titular question, and we gain valuable and undeniably complicated personal insight into the inner life of the woman behind the public persona of the High Priestess of Soul.