Review: What Happened, Miss Simone?

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As historian Matthew Catania once said, “The problem with revolutions is that they always end right where they began.” What Happened, Miss Simone?, the Liz Garbus documentary that juxtaposes the career of legendary jazz singer Nina Simone with the black power movement, proves Catania’s lesson to be painfully true.

Garbus provides a balanced look at the entirety of Simone’s life with a variety of techniques: family photos, highly personal diary entries, archival images, news reports, and talking-head interviews. Then, of course, there is the music. 

Nina Simone’s performances throughout the documentary are the star of the show. We get to see the singer shine in dive bars, Dutch holes in the wall, and finally Carnegie Hall. This all-encompassing showcase gives viewers the rare feeling that they’ve been ardent fans, as the hipsters say, “before she was famous.” For a while, I had a hard time describing why Simone is so captivating. After much puzzling, I finally figured it out– her emotional vulnerability is always on display. In one memorable moment, Simone does what I’m sure countless Top Ten artists would give their left arm to do– she tells an audience member to sit down… and won’t continue until he does. Even viewed decades later on film, Simone’s raw anger here is palpable.

This fiery side of Nina contrasts starkly to another outstanding scene in the documentary, where Simone sweetly sings “I Love You, Porgy” to Hugh Heffner and a gaggle of stick-thin, blonde bombshells in the Playboy Mansion. This moment, while entertaining, has a sad underbelly. After all, Simone was only there to put on a show– she never would have been invited into the Mansion otherwise. Because she was black, she wouldn’t even qualify as a bunny. Yet here, Simone shows no anger at such an injustice. Despite the fact that she dreamed of playing Bach to thousands, she sings her song to the centerfold girls, eyes void of any emotion.

These two sides of Nina Simone–depressed and heated– seem like two different people in the film. In an interview, Simone’s daughter, Lisa, explains that her mother always felt emotions too strongly. In fact, Nina was bipolar. Her drive to perform came from extreme cycles of “anger, creativity, and passion.” However, while this fire made Nina a fantastic artist, it also made her an unhappy person. As Lisa said, “My mom was Nina Simone 24/7, and that’s where it became a problem.”

The point of Garbus’ film is not to tell the audience what to think about Nina Simone. Rather, she wants viewers to feel what what it was like to live as a black American in the sixties. And unfortunately, even for a star, a large majority of Simone’s life was shaped by racial injustice. “Mississippi Goddamn,” Simone’s song about the bombing of a black church in 1963, was what catapulted Nina into the black power movement. Soon, all of her performances were politically charged. Clubs stopped booking her because they were afraid of what she would say.

82I think that the artists who don't get involved in preaching messages probably are happier

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