2015 Documentary Watch Project: What Happened, Miss Simone?

For July’s 2015 Document Watch Project pick, I took a friend’s suggestion and watched a Rockumentary! Yes, I’m fully aware that Nina Simone doesn’t fit into the “rock music” genre. Nina does rock, though. Confession: Growing up, I had virtually nobody to school me in the ways of cool music. I had to get there on my own through roundabout channels. The first time I heard Nina Simone was when I saw the movie Point of No Return with Bridget Fonda in 1993. Thus began my infinite love for Nina Simone’s voice and my fascination with assassin films.

Screen Shot 2015-07-31 at 8.22.36 AMThe first Nina Simone album I bought was At the Village Gate. I have no idea why I didn’t grab one of the many greatest hits collections (I think I’ve said before I’m no purist) but I’m so glad I picked a live one. Hearing Nina perform live – even if it’s a recording on a CD – is life-altering. There’s no holding her back – blues, jazz, folk, hymns, Bee Gees covers – she can do anything, and she does it her way.


Sometimes I sound like gravel, and sometimes I sound like coffee and cream.  – Nina Simone

So, going into this “Netflix Original” film, I knew a bit about the life of Nina Simone, aka Eunice Waymon, but nowhere near enough. I knew she played piano from a very early age, a performer at the get-go. I knew she went to Juilliard, aligned with the Black Power movement, and ended up living in France for the last part of her life. Everything else about her came to me through her songs.

What Happened, Miss Simone? is a biographical documentary jampacked with photos, videos (that clip of Simone performing for a young Hugh Hefner and his bunnies at the Playboy Mansion – whoa), music – of course music – and even her diary excerpts. Interviews with Simone’s daughter Lisa Simone Kelly (herself an executive producer of the film) and guitarist and friend Al Schackman provide emotional, revealing truths. The arc of her story – from small town North Carolina to Atlantic City to Newport to Carnegie Hall to the Liberian coast – is spellbinding, not to mention her life’s intertwining with the Civil Rights movement, her abusive marriage to ex-cop turned manager Andy Stroud, and her struggle with bipolar disorder. It’s not fair that Miss Simone is no longer here to speak for herself – though yes, she does, through her music – but Liz Garbus’ documentary does an outstanding job of bringing Simone’s many interviews and journal writing to the forefront.

How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?  – Nina Simone

Because Nina had a lot to say – she was ferocious; whether striding across a stage inciting riotous revolution or calmly sitting at her piano singing about love. I know that’s why I’m drawn to her – that fire of creativity in the heart of her that burned through the delicate veil between dazzling genius and self-destructive madness. It’s tempting to write that Nina’s talent was otherworldly, but I’m more compelled to say that her music is the best of our world.


La chanteuse américaine Nina Simone en concert à Morlaix (Bretagne, France) en mai 1982. “Nina Simone14” by Roland Godefroy – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons 

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