‘What Happened, Miss Simone’: Sundance Review
Eminent documentary director Liz Garbus explores the life and music of the imperious singer and pianist Nina Simone, using rare archival material
Like a well-mastered greatest hits album, director Liz Garbus’ biographical documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? captures the major musical highs of the singer Nina Simone’s career, while providing competent liner notes on her story. Viewers perhaps only familiar with Simone’s best-known songs – “My Baby Just Cares for Me”, say, or maybe the rousing “Mississippi Goddamn” – will walk away (or perhaps more accurately, switch off their TV sets and computers since it’s scheduled to premiere first later this year on Netflix) feeling like they got to know the High Priestess a bit better in both her glory and her darkest moments. (It was made with the cooperation of Simone’s estate and her daughter Lisa Simone Kelly is an executive producer.) However, more hardcore fans will feel the absence here both of some of her finest songs and more and interesting biographical details.
In other words, What Happened, Miss Simone does its job well, proving especially treasurable for its wealth of rare archive film footage and audio material that captures Simone’s fierce talent, fiery temperament and fragile mental health. But it is unlikely to be ranked up there with the best music-themed bio-docs, such as Martin Scorsese’s authoritative study of Bob Dylan, No Direction Home, Charlotte Zwerin’s Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser, or Kevin Macdonald’s Marley, which admittedly mostly unfold on a broader scale. As scrupulously assembled as it is, it’s arguably not even director Garbus’ best work, lacking the passion of her debut The Farm: Angola, USA (1998) or the dizzying breadth of her recent Bobby Fischer Against the World (2011).
What Miss Simone does have going for it is its unique access to extremely rare material, some of it never seen publicly before, including a surprisingly frank interview with her late husband Andrew Stroud from an abandoned documentary project, and audio clips from her interviews with Stephen Cleary, the co-author of her autobiography I Put a Spell on You. Rostrum work displays excerpts from her diaries, presumably shown with permission from her estate, that illuminate her violent and tempestuous relationship with Stroud which led her to contemplate suicide at times.
There’s a clear parallel here with Garbus’ Love, Marilyn (even down to the use of a comma in the title) which deployed actors reading excerpts from Marilyn Monroe’s diaries and notes. In this case, Simone’s actual voice comes across even more clearly, which is only apt given how very distinctive that rich, contralto, sugar-and-sandpaper voice was, whether it was singing or in conversation. There are also many thrilling clips of Simone performing, sometimes smiling and dancing, transported by the music, but also glaring ferociously at her audience, calling out individuals daring to get out of their seats. She probably would have hated the idea of people watching these clips on an internet platform that gives viewers the power to pause for bathroom breaks.
Despite the fact that the Simone estate has been so cooperative with the filmmakers, Miss Simone is no hagiography. Although due air time is given to her hard-scrabble upbringing, the racism that she encountered in her youth that radicalized her later, and her abusive marriage, the film doesn’t shy away from how she could also act monstrously herself. Daughter Simone Kelly speaks frankly to camera not just about how her father beat Nina but also how Nina later beat her when she was a child, and the narrative is salted with references to her many tantrums and violent interactions with colleagues. Some of this could no doubt be ascribed to her bipolar disorder, diagnosed only late in her life, but the film also leaves little doubt that she had a mean streak wide as the Mississippi that led her to embrace the self-applied label “black bitch.”
Inevitably, there are gaps and omissions. While much is made out of how the Curtis Institute of Music rejected her application to study, which Simone put down to racism, but only a fleeting mention is made of Simone's attendance at Juilliard beforehand. Glancing mention is made of her strong sexual appetite but the movie shies away from naming many names, omitting to cover her well-known relationship with Errol Barrow, the prime minister of Barbados. The film’s songbook encompasses a few rarer tunes, but oddly there’s no performance here of one her most signature songs, “Four Women,” which she actually composed herself. Her most important and longstanding musical collaborator, guitarist Al Schackman, is on hand to give an insider’s insight into her immense skills as a musician, but some viewers may feel like a little more time might have been spent on exploring her work and immense talent in a more informed, musicological way.
In terms of release timing, the film both benefits and suffers from its relation to two other high-profile projects. On the one hand, the film’s fascinating focus on Simone’s involvement in the civil rights movement and her presence at the marches in Selma, Alabama resonate richly with Ava DuVernay’s Selma and should provide a good marketing hook. On the other hand, Cynthia Mort’s biopic Nina starring Zoe Saldana and co-starring Selma’s David Oyelowo continues to languish unreleased, a state of affairs which might be both a hindrance (it might have helped promote interest in this) or a help to What Happened, Miss Simone? (it might of eclipsed this). No doubt the real Miss Simone would have been pleased that the film featuring her own voice got in the first word.
Production companies: A Netflix, Radical Media production in association with Moxie Firecracker
With: Nina Simone, Lisa Simone Kelly, Al Schackman
Director/screenwriter: Liz Garbus
Producers: Amy Hobby, Justin Wilkes, Jayson Jackson, Liz Garbus
Executive producers: Sidney Beaumont, Jon Kamen, Lisa Nishimura, Adam Del Deo, Lisa Simone Kelly
Director of photography: Igor Martinovic, Rachel Morrison, Ronan Killeen
Production designer: Markus Kirschner
Editor: Joshua L. Pearson
Sales: Moxie Firecracker
No rating, 102 minutes