It was an historic moment when Nina Simone took the stage at the 1976 Montreaux Jazz Festival, marking her return to music following an extended period of near bankruptcy and self-imposed exile. It’s hard to imagine Simone’s immense presence and immeasurable talent ever falling off the map. What Happened, Miss Simone?, Liz Garbus’ new documentary about the High Priestess of Soul, uses the concert to pose—and eventually come full to answer—its titular question. Unearthing a wealth of archival footage, rare interviews, and diary excerpts, the film narrates the triumphs and tragedies of Simone’s life and career largely in the late singer’s unmistakable voice, which by her own admission, “sometimes sounds like gravel and sometimes sounds like coffee and cream.”
The metaphor extends to her erratic temperament, which could turn on a dime from vulnerable to volatile. Highly demanding and wildly unpredictable, Simone would infamously walk out on her audience or insult them midway through a song if she felt she wasn’t getting the undivided attention she deserved—but when she had them, they were rapt under her spell.
“Nina was very well known for being aggressive and temperamental with her audience,” Garbus said in an interview following the film’s premiere at The Sundance Film Festival. “I was interested in starting with a piece of Nina that to the uninitiated would be intriguing but also confusing.”
Indeed, Simone’s expression in that opening footage from Montreaux is virtually indecipherable. Black dress clinging to her powerful form, heavy eyelids painted bright blue, she makes her way slowly toward the microphone—her steps weighty but determined—only to fiercely stare down her audience when she gets there. The extended period of silence that follows is punctuated only by the sound of nervous laugher.
“The laughter is so interesting,” said Garbus. “The audience in Montreax laughs because they’re uncomfortable and [The Sundance] audience laughed for the same reason; they don’t really understand what’s going on. But once you know Nina, you know exactly what’s going on.”
Garbus is no stranger to the destructive bi-products of genius and fame—her previous films include Bobby Fischer Against the World (2011) and Love, Marilyn (2012). Like her previous work, What Happened, Miss Simone provides a political, emotional, and psychological unpacking of her subject. From the stigmas and insecurities she faced as a dark-skinned black female performer in the ‘60s to her career-long battle with depression (the singer was formally diagnosed as bipolar in the 1980s), the film does justice to the textures and complexities of Simone’s life.
“A fierce feminist and an activist, she didn’t accept the roles that were offered to her—she created her own space,” the director commented. “You see the angry diva [on stage] but then you look into her diaries, where she turns the hatred onto herself…she was definitely very close to suicide at that period late in her marriage.”
The film reveals the extent to which Simone’s hot-blooded stage presence was also found in her personal life. Her daughter Lisa (who also executive produced the film) is forthcoming in interviews about the abuse in her childhood home. Simone was frequently beaten by her husband and manager, Andy Stroud, and would eventually pay the violence forward onto her own daughter.
“My mother was Nina Simone 24/7,” her daughter gravely explains in the film. “That’s when it became a problem.”
Despite being produced by Simone’s estate, Garbus thankfully eschews hagiography in favor of an evenhanded portrait that pays tribute to Simone’s musical genius without sweeping her dark side under the rug. “I wanted to be sure that there were no issues around control, that I had final cut of the film, and I did,” the filmmaker said. “I was amazed by Lisa’s restraint. I did a very long day of interviews with her and then she was totally removed.”
Garbus wisely restricts her interview subjects to the small coterie that inhabited Simone’s inner circle. In addition to her daughter, she’s included rare footage of Simone’s late husband from an earlier abandoned documentary project and has notably convinced Simone’s long-time guitarist, Al Shackman, to participate in the project (Al had previously refused to speak about the singer). “[He] wasn’t sure how to talk about the mental illness and domestic violence because it hadn’t been out yet,” Garbus commented. “I think that once he understood we were having Nina and Andy talk about this things he felt more comfortable being a voice amongst them.”
While some viewers may find fault with the film’s omissions—a few of Simone’s most beloved songs and her battle with breast cancer are noticeably absent—the film packs an enormous amount of an enormous life into it’s relatively slight 100-minute running time.
Born Eunice Waymon, Simone started playing the piano at age 3. Hailed as a child prodigy, she was taken under the tutelage of a white matron in her small North Carolina town and raised with the aspiration that she would become the first black woman to play Carnegie Hall. Through her journals, we learn about her earliest encounters with racism that would inform her civil rights activism later in life. Simone describes an acute awareness of having to cross the train tracks that separated her family from the white neighborhood to attend her piano lessons. She vividly recalls the alien white hands that taught her small black ones to grace the keys.
Rather than conceptualize the telling of her life as a straight chronology, Garbus and editor Josh Pearson have structured the film according to the principles of a musical—fans will be thrilled that the film takes the time to luxuriate in the splendor of Simone’s songs.
“I get really frustrated with music docs that don’t let the songs play out—that’s what we’re honoring after all—but at the same time you want to keep up your narrative pace and we’ve got a story to tell” Garbus said. “Every song has a narrative function.”
Simone’s 1959 rendition of Gershwin’s “I Love You, Porgy” was the first song that brought her international acclaim “but it’s really about finding [her husband] Andy,” Garbus offers. By the same token, “Mississippi Goddamn” is the anthem of the Civil Rights movement. An enraged and impassioned response to the outbreak of violence in 1963, the song marked a major turning point in Simone’s life—transforming her from singer to voice of the people. Garbus provides extended footage of a particularly rousing rendition of the song performed on the Selma marches in which Simone strains her vocal chords with such furious passion that her voice never quite returned to it’s original octave range.
It was her activism that propelled Simone’s music passionately forward, elevating her soul-bearing performances to new heights, and allowing her to claim a sense of agency which had previously been in the demanding hands of her husband.
“I don’t mind going without food or water as long as I’m doing something meaningful like this,” she confides in her journal. (Earlier she complains of having to rely on pills to maintain the impossible schedule Andy kept her on.)
But Simone’s increasingly radical politics proved to be a double-edged sword. Though she was transformed into one of the most crucial civil rights icons of her time, her aggression also alienated her mainstream audience. (“I’m not not violent,” Shackman recalls Simone telling him.) Moving her audience was no longer enough: she wanted to “shake them to pieces.” Her politics proved a major point of contention with her husband, who felt she was destroying the career he’d worked so hard to build for her and the two ultimately divorced after nine years of marriage.
One of the film’s most enjoyable chapters focuses on the close-knit community of New York’s black intelligentsia that Simone became an integral part of—and became an integral part of her life. The scene’s frequenters included playwright Lorraine Hansberry, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, and Malcom X, who was godfather to Simone’s daughter. Both Simone and Malcom X’s daughters paint an enviable picture of their childhoods surrounded by these great minds, but following the assassination of Malcom X and after losing Hansberry to illness, Simone saw the civil rights movement as non-existent and became disillusioned with America as a whole.
Abandoning the country, her music, and her family, she fled to Africa before eventually making her way to Europe. Drained of funds and trapped in a deep depression, she had to be dragged by friends to Paris and put on medication so she could start singing for her supper and slowly re-build her career.
By the time the film returns to that concert in Montreaux, Garbus has ensured it’s an entirely different and much deeper experience—one more likely to induce tears than laughter of any kind. The extent to which Simone could not be separated from her music from her own is clear as soon as she opens her mouth to sing. With that remarkable combination of fragility and frenetic power, she spills her guts and lays bare her soul.