Director: Liz Garbus
What Happened, Miss Simone? is the sort of documentary so well-crafted that going into it almost entirely unfamiliar with its subject isn't an obstacle to enjoying it. I went into it with only the broadest of knowledge of Nina Simone's career and was totally captivated by the complex, dynamic, and at times self-destructive woman revealed through archival footage of her on stage and in interviews, and through interviews of those who knew her. While pretty much every award for documentary filmmaking this year went to Amy, this other chronicle of a star who burned bright and self-immolated with fame is just as compelling and as fascinating.
Directed by Liz Garbus, What Happened, Miss Simone? unfolds in a straightforward way, relating Simone's biography in chronological fashion, starting with her childhood in North Carolina. Discovering an affinity and talent for the piano early in life, Simone was at once embraced by the white people who provided her with her first training in the classical style and would make up her earliest audiences, while also being subjected to prejudice, including an incident which she would later cite as contributing to her involvement in the Civil Rights movement when her parents were forced out of their front row seats at one of her recitals and she refused to play until they were moved back to the front. Her dream growing up was to become the first black woman to play at Carnegie Hall as a classical pianist but, despite her talent as a musician, racism presented a barrier to her rising in that direction. She would find better luck playing in clubs in Atlantic City, where she began singing in addition to playing piano and took the stage name "Nina Simone" in order to keep her parents from finding out that she was playing in bars.
Simone's rise to stardom would coincide with her marriage to Andrew Stroud, who also became her manager, but so would many of the problems that would plague her throughout the rest of her life. As her manager, Stroud pushed Simone towards success, allowing them to live an affluent lifestyle, but also worked her towards exhaustion to ensure that the money was always coming in. He was also abusive and the marriage, as recounted by Simone in archival footage and confirmed by her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, as interviewed by Garbus, was marked by open and escalating violence. However, despite Stroud pushing her to greater commercial success, Simone instead found her career going in the opposite direction as her involvement with the Civil Rights movement, and in particular her endorsement of violent revolution and the increasing number of songs in her repertoire that directly addressed issues of racial inequality and injustice, resulted in her being offered fewer opportunities to perform than some of her less openly political contemporaries. Dissatisfied with how things were going, Simone left the United States altogether, living for a time in Liberia and then parts of Europe, her ability to work affected by ongoing mental health issues but nevertheless experiencing a resurgence in popularity before her death.
All things told, What Happened, Miss Simone? is a fairly intimate portrait of its subject, with much of what is related being told by Simone in her own words, either through recorded archive interviews or through the use of her diaries. What she reveals of her own life, particularly in the diaries, is a complex, often volatile, relationship with the world and the people around her, particularly the husband/manager who helped her attain a new level of success but also seemed determine to break her as a person (a fact which, in his own interview footage, he seems pretty comfortable with). At the same time, however, Garbus takes a fairly even hand with her subject, acknowledging her as a victim of abuse without glossing over her own propensity for encouraging or perpetuating violence herself. Footage of her on stage during her activist days shows her encouraging her audience to get ready and go kill some white people, and in her own interview Lisa Simone Kelly reveals the physical and emotional abuse she suffered at her mother's hands. The film tries to take a full view of its subject rather than act as a form of deification.
For all that, though, there does seem to be some things that film shies away from. For example, when Simone is diagnosed as bipolar towards the end of her life and put on a medication regimen that will allow her to keep performing, but has some nasty side effects, the film pauses on that long enough to allow Lisa Simone Kelly to express what appears to be some concern with the motives of the people who got her on the medication, but doesn't really follow through with the implication. Similarly, the film barely acknowledges the fact that her long self-exile from the United States was due in part to the threat of prosecution she faced for unpaid taxes. Still, the story that gets told in What Happened, Miss Simone? is fascinating, depicting an electrifying performer and an extremely complicated person, even if it feels like there are some gaps in the narrative. Then again, maybe that's the point. The film, like a great performer, just leaves you wanting more.