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What Happened, Miss Simone? (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 22, 2020


What Happened, Miss Simone?


Featuring Lisa Simone Kelly, Roger Nupie, Al Shackman, George Wein, Stanley Crouch, Dick Gregory, Ilyasah Shabazz, Ambassador Shabazz, Gerrit De Bruin and archival footage of Nina Simone.

Screenplay by Liz Garbus.

Directed by Liz Garbus.

Distributed by Netflix.  92 minutes.  Rated PG-13.

Jazz chanteuse Nina Simone always somehow felt too big for this world.  Her talent was too immense, her unwavering belief in her viewpoint was all-encompassing and her world-weariness was also massive.

She was a singer, a wife and mother and a social activist.  She was part of the Algonquin round table of civil rights – she knew Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and most of the other leaders of the good fight, she played during the march on Selma, and her best friend was acclaimed playwright Lorraine Hansberry of A Raisin in the Sun fame.

Simone was brilliant and self-loathing, revolutionary and yet insecure, massively independent and yet ruled by love.  At the same time love tore her down every single time.  She eventually realized that she was extremely good at a great many things, but being in a relationship was not one of them.  She was also bipolar, in a time where no one really knew what that meant.

She loved her husband and yet was beaten by him.  She loved her daughter and yet turned her anger and powerlessness upon her.  She loved her music, but she refused to dilute it in order to get other people to love it too. She was an imaginative arranger – who else would record the lyrics of the tragic Rodgers and Hart song “Little Girl Blue” to the tune of the holiday standard “Good King Wenceslas?”  She also recorded “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” a year before The Animals had a huge hit with a version of the song.  She is mostly known for three songs – two of which appeared on her 1957 debut album Little Girl Blue – and yet she has a long and brilliant body of work.

Even those three songs took decades to penetrate pop culture – her cover of George Gershwin’s “I Loves You Porgy” from Porgy & Bess was an immediate smash, but “Feeling Good” sort of steeped into the culture stealthily over the years and “My Baby Cares Just for Me” became a fluke surprise hit years later, in 1987, when it was used in a Chanel commercial.

At that point, Simone had been mostly out of the public eye for years, living mostly in Europe and Africa, areas that she fled to in order to get away from racism and ignorance.  These trips were only partially successful – Simone traded in society’s demons for her own – but eventually she was able to make it back on stage.  She never became the artistic force that her massive talent promised, but by her 2003 death from cancer, she was recognized as one of the all-time great jazz vocalists.

The title of this film was a line taken from 1970 Redbook essay on the singer by poet Maya Angelou.  It gives a good overview of indeed “What happened,” with Simone explaining her life via old interviews and through interviews with some of the people who knew her best.

Her childhood began as a classical piano prodigy deep in the Jim Crow south.  Her talent got her a scholarship for a stint at Juilliard.  Soon after, she was turned down by the venerable Philadelphia music school The Curtis Institute of Music, a slight that Simone later became certain was due to racism.  (The Curtis Institute eventually gave Simone an honorary degree soon before her death.)

A teen girl with a family to feed (her parents and siblings moved north with her), she took her talents to some of the slimiest bars in Atlantic City, NJ, where she became a lounge pianist.  There was not enough work for piano, though, and when her boss told her if she wanted to keep her job, she was going to have to sing, Simone completely changed her act.

It turned out that she had a particularly unique voice, a husky contralto which made her stand out.  When “Porgy” became a hit, she looked like she would be a superstar.  Though she was highly respected in the music business for several years after, she never quite retained that stardom.  Eventually she started writing more of her own music, and made much of it political and somewhat revolutionary, like the incredible “Mississippi Goddam,” which angrily took on racism long before that was a safe thing for a young black woman to do.

Looking back, it’s hard to look at Nina Simone’s life without wondering what could have been.  And yet, even if she did not find the peace and stardom she was longing for, she still lived a fascinating, complex life.  What’s Wrong Miss Simone? is an imperfect documentary, but it does share much of the vital life force and tragedy that was Nina Simone.  It is a life story that deserves to be told.

The new Blu-ray version of the documentary also includes a bonus CD of some of Simone’s greatest performances, changing this purchase from a good deal to a slam dunk.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2016 All rights reserved. Posted: September 16, 2016.

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