What Happened, Miss Simone?-2015
Reviewed October 25, 2016
Nina Simone, who died in 2003 at the age of seventy, was an iconic singer and pianist with a musical style all her own. As important as her soulful musical creativity, Simone was also a civil rights activist during the restless 1960’s, and was outspoken about black power and racial discrimination- leading to much controversy. What Happened, Miss Simone tells her story in a thorough, rich fashion.
Executive produced by her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, who is interviewed throughout the documentary, the piece is standard fare, using a multitude of interviews and performances by Simone. We experience her upbringing in North Carolina, her acceptance into the prestigious Juilliard, her families reliance on her for money, and her years of struggle performing in dingy night clubs.
I loved seeing the old clips of her performances- they are raw, gritty, and full of something special- poetic almost. Simone had trouble relaxing as she gave every ounce of energy in her shows and knew no other way to be.
Simone is like no other and the documentary does not need to explain this point- her performances tell it all. Not one to phone in a performance and arguably not really “performing” at all, Simone was as real as they come- immersing herself into her music – and often times seeming to drift off into another reality.
As an activist, Nina Simone is shown to be controversial- not against supporting violence by blacks against whites in the name of freedom. Simone had tumultuous relationships with both her husband and daughter- having claimed to have been beaten repeatedly and forced to work.
Clear comparisons to other singers such as Aretha Franklin are explored, but there is an edgy element to Simone that others singers of that day did not have- she had a style all her own and did not “play the game” to achieve her success- instead choosing to only be true to herself. This is not a slight against Franklin, but the documentary states that if Simone had been happier, she might have had more commercial appeal, but would she have been satisfied with that? I doubt it as she was an intense soul.
Shocking to me are claims of physical abuse vocalized by her daughter, but this is explained away as a result of her mental illness and not herself at times. Prescription drugs and diagnoses were not what they are now in those days.
From a critical perspective, the documentary delivers what it is supposed to- an overview of this amazing talent- warts and all. We basically see her from child until retiree, and cannot help but pity her in a way because of her apparent mental illness, which caused her not always to be the charming celebrity we would want her to be. What Happened, Miss Simone helped me to learn something fresh about an artist I was unfamiliar with and that is what a documentary should do.