Reviewing from the Sundance Film Festival, Mike Hogan says the upcoming Netflix documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? perfectly captures the eccentric, unique artist, far better than any archival YouTube deep dive could.
BY MIKE HOGAN
There’s an amazing moment in director Liz Garbus’s upcoming Netflix documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? where Al Schackman, Simone’s guitarist and friend of 42 years, remembers his shock at seeing her her walk up to Martin Luther King Jr. and declare, “I’m not nonviolent.” To which King replied, in Schackman’s telling, “That’s all right, sister, you don’t have to be.”
What else was he supposed to say? By then, nobody could control Nina Simone—not even Nina Simone.
The astonishingly gifted and supernaturally cool singer grew up in an environment of crushing, undiscussed oppression. In Jim Crow North Carolina, racial discrimination was as inescapable as the weather, so what was there to say about it? Young Eunice Waymon—that was her given name—absorbed a lifetime’s worth of hurt even as a couple of nice white ladies from the other side of the tracks took an interest in her talent, subjecting her to eight-hour days of rigorous piano practice. Their dream, and hers, was that she would someday become the first black woman to play classical music at Carnegie Hall.
Instead, she was rejected by the Curtis Academy of Music in Philadelphia—because she was black, she later concluded—and wound up playing pop, jazz, R&B, and soul at a grimy bar in Atlantic City. She was so embarrassed at this fall from grace that she adopted the stage name Nina Simone so that her family, whom she was supporting with her late-night gigs, wouldn’t discover her secret.
It was indisputably wrong for Curtis to reject her on the basis of her skin color, and churlish at best for her boss in Atlantic City to threaten to fire her if she didn’t sing. But what a treasure the world would have missed out on if Simone had never discovered the wonder of her voice. It is among the most expressive of the 20th century, swollen with emotion, almost masculine in its depth, and versatile enough to range, as she put it, from raspy to rich and smooth as cocoa and milk.
Eventually, she fell in love with and married Andrew Stroud, an NYPD vice-squad detective. He was scary, but he also had a plan for Simone’s career, and for a while things were good. Stroud quit his job on the force and became Simone’s full-time manager. With her classical training, quasi-European sensibility, and savvy management, Simone enjoyed commercial and crossover success. One of the film’s most surreal scenes shows her performing “I Loves You, Porgy” for Hugh Hefner and his gang on the set of his TV show, Playboy’s Penthouse.
Simone undoubtedly enjoyed the trappings of success—the Mt. Vernon home she shared with Stroud and their daughter, Lisa, contained a cold storage room for her fur coats—but all was not well. She found the touring schedule Stroud imposed her exhausting, but her complaints fell on deaf ears or, worse, provoked him to berate her, beat her, even rape her, she said.
Moreover, she wasn’t fulfilled. Her dream was to be a classical musician, not “the high priestess of soul.” However staggering her accomplishments seem in retrospect, they didn’t match up to her expectations for herself.
Everything changed in the summer and fall of 1963, as racist terrorists waged a campaign of violence that culminated with the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and the assassination of activist Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi. Possessed by horror and rage, the swallowed indignities and alienation of her youth all coming back to her now, Simone wrote and performed—at Carnegie Hall, no less—a blistering new song with the radio-unfriendly title “Mississippi Goddamn.” That’s when she found her true calling.
It would be unfair both to Garbus and to Netflix subscribers who plan to stream this documentary to give away what happens next. Suffice it to say, Simone was both exhilarated and radicalized by the Civil Rights current that swept her right into the center of a war. That’s how she saw it, certainly, and the film’s most uncomfortable moment comes when, under the influence of her friend Stokely Carmichael, she asks an audience of festival-goers if they are ready to burn down buildings and even kill for the movement.
As she leaves her family behind to start a new life in Liberia and later in Europe, a happy ending is far from guaranteed, not least because her increasingly erratic, even violent behavior threatens to isolate her from the only people capable of helping her. It wasn’t until she reached rock bottom, the film suggests, that Schackman and another friend insisted on taking Simone to a doctor, who offered a diagnosis that gave her the gift of self-control at last, enabling her to enjoy a dignified final act.
Garbus’s documentary is a celebration of Simone’s legacy, but it also takes a reasonably unflinching approach to her faults. (Though her various exploits with firearms go unmentioned, she can be heard in voice over stating that she would have liked to take up arms against the white enemy, if only Stroud hadn’t stood in her way.) But the real joy here is the music, and the archival footage of Simone doing what she did best: singing, playing piano, performing.
In particular, the footage her 1976 comeback performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival captures both her terrifying eccentricity (“Sit down,” she commands a random audience member midway through her performance of “Stars”) and the sheer sublimity of her artistry (the song, once she gets going, is jaw-droppingly great).
You can watch this stuff on YouTube, but what a privilege to have it assembled in this stylish, soulful package. The risk of making a documentary of a towering artist is that, by explaining her, you only end up diminishing her. Not Nina Simone—not this time. In Liz Garbus’s telling, Simone’s talent and personality shine through, as gloriously singular, and uncontrollable, as ever.