“I’ll tell you what freedom is to me: no fear”
As someone who heard “Feeling Good” on a Muse album in the early 2000s thinking it was their song until the promotional advertisements for season four of “Six Feet Under” got me researching the female vocalist singing its “new” rendition, a documentary on Nina Simone is something my musical education was in desperate need of watching. But that doesn’t mean Liz Garbus‘ film won’t also resonate with the musician’s most ardent fans—it’s extensive look at her tumult and genius can only make her legend larger for those who already held her as one. With a slew of archival performances alongside new interviews of daughter Lisa Simone Kelly, guitarist Al Schackman, and more, What Happened, Miss Simone? goes a long way towards answering its title’s query.
Who was she? A classically trained pianist from the age of four whose sole goal in life was to play Bach on the Carnegie Hall stage. To hear her tell it courtesy of old interviews, the decision to even sing at all was one arrived at by necessity. And yet it wasn’t long before her sound became recognizable from coast to coast as a unique voice with which to take note. From club stage to sold out concerts to being hailed as the “High Priestess of Soul” to vanishing from the music scene altogether, Simone was nothing if not a woman possessed by her own identity and refusal to bow to anyone’s conventions. Like so many artistic geniuses, though, she was haunted by pain and depression.
Garbus wonderfully begins her film with Simone’s first concert back from her hiatus. There’s no caption or lead-up, just the rapturous applause from the crowd and Nina’s uncomfortably long curtsy in response. Only when the singer finally speaks about having been gone since 1968 do we wonder what year this footage is from. Lo and behold text flashes onscreen to let us know, sending us back into the past to discover what exactly led to that moment. And it’s Simone who explains her evolution with words touching on race, talent, marriage, and motherhood. She tells us about her violent nature, diaries describe her volatile relationship with husband Andrew Stroud, and suddenly this woman with America at her feet flies away to Liberia to start anew.
It’s all edited together with an electric energy as her music plays and fades into new voices narrating the tale. People like Schackman and Dick Gregory are the first to smile and remember those early days of success fondly. Later, once we get to the part where Simone became the female voice of the Civil Rights movement, anecdotes from Kelly come about the Who’s Who of black culture coming and going from their home in the 60s. Malcolm X and wife Betty Shabazz were their neighbors and daughters Attallah and Ilyasah practically sisters of Lisa. Playwright Lorraine Hansberry was her Godmother (and dedicatee of Simone’s seminal song “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black” with lyrics by Weldon Irvine). Nina was a pillar of the movement.
But just as we become empowered by her enthusiasm and drive to make a difference when so many wouldn’t—her husband/manager/abuser included—we see how the extra exposure politically took a toll on her career. The strain of this and everything else she endured during her young professional career and long classically trained upbringing was coming to a boil and a release was necessary to continue breathing let alone excel at the level she had. And with the flip of a switch Nina Simone the celebrity was gone. It’s a powerful thing to witness even if from afar and decades removed. This virtuoso forced into adapting her goals to survive, crushed under the weight of her responsibilities to find brilliance came at a huge cost.
It’s this truth that renders her mistakes and anger tolerable. She had demons, but with them came a passion that allowed such deep feeling to in turn make us feel just the same. Garbus’ film shows Simone’s trajectory with all the good and bad it entailed through as transparent a filter as possible to approximate reality via first-hand conversation. She even gets an archival interview where Stroud admits to slapping his wife. Whether that fact is swept under the rug or not, it’s on record right alongside Lisa’s own admission that Nina did the same to her. We understand there’s complexity in the reasons, so while we can’t condone the actions we’re still provided the leeway to not suddenly despise the woman behind the timeless music.
If anything it makes us appreciate her accomplishments all the more. In the face of so much hate Simone focused her rage into strong music that woke-up a people and an entire nation. This isn’t a documentary glorifying her as a saint who did no wrong; it instead depicts how fallible she was—her humanity similar to yours and mine despite the fame and power. The memories by others are ultimately bittersweet with glory days making way for immense struggle and the hope of a return to happier days that didn’t seem possible for those with an inside view of her psychological explosion. Many people are shown getting hurt along the way, but it’s difficult not to believe their pain was worth it. Nina was that important.