The new documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? (available for streaming on Netflix 26 June) looks at the life of one of the most talented performers of the 20th Century – Nina Simone.
Featuring an exclusive interview with her daughter and previously unseen footage of the late pianist, the documentary shows the private and the public side of Simone in equal measure, attempting to undo some illusions that fans and detractors alike have held.
Her daughter sums up the drama of her mother’s life at the beginning of the film: ‘My mother was one of the greatest entertainers of all time, hands down … but she paid a huge price. People think that when she went on stage, that was when she became Nina Simone. My mother was Nina Simone 24/7. And that’s where it became a problem.’
Simone recounts in an interview that she began to think about racial divisions for the first time when she gave a concert as a young girl and discovered that her parents were only allowed to sit in the back row. She refused to perform until her parents were seated at the front.
From a childhood of poverty in the South, she trained as a classical pianist. In the early 1950s she was denied the opportunity to study at the Curtis Institute of Music, but did not realise that she had been rejected because she was black until much later.
She supported herself by making her first appearances as Nina Simone (a stage name, her real name was Eunice Waymon) in small bars, playing from midnight to 7am, where she slowly built up a reputation as a stellar performer who applied the discipline of her classical training to jazz, blues and folk music.
The archival footage of Simone allows viewers who might not be familiar with the intensity of her live performances to watch her develop as an artist while the film fills in biographical details. As she began to enter the public consciousness as a performer of high quality, she began to develop a political consciousness.
As the times became more radical in the 1960s and leaders of the civil rights movement were shot down one after the other, Simone’s style became more aggressive, more Afro-centric and more intense. To listen to ‘Mississippi Goddam’ in light of the acts of racist terrorism then and now – the song was written following the Birmingham church bombing in 1963 that killed four black girls then; I listened to it just this morning in the wake of Dylan Roof’s racist shooting of nine black people in a South Carolina church – sends chills up my spine.
It is recounted in the film that Simone’s voice cracked from the strain of the anger she felt during a performance of ‘Mississippi Goddam’ and that she never regained the octave she lost.
Lisa Simone Kelly, Simone’s daughter, talks about growing up in this spirit of radicalism – their next-door neighbour was Dr. Betty Shabazz, the widow of Malcolm X. Two of Shabazz’s daughters, who were close childhood friends with Kelly, provide an interesting take on the climate of the 1960s.
Simone’s ex-husband and former manager, Andrew Stroud, tells how radicalized Simone became listening to speeches by Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael: ‘She wanted to align herself with the extreme terrorist militants that were influencing her. And after all these meetings with all these people she would come to me: “Let’s get the guns. Let’s poison the reservoir.” All sorts of violent terrorist acts.’
Perhaps the passion for freedom and liberation that Simone sang about and the unsettling lengths she was willing to go for it stems from the constraints and abuse that she suffered during her marriage to Stroud – who admits his abusive behaviour with frightening candour. Others confirm this, and selections from Simone’s handwritten diary are transcribed, describing a nearly suicidal despair over the state of her life, which had become a cycle of performing, travelling apart from her daughter, and abuse.
Finally, she left the marriage and left the United States, never to return. Like Josephine Baker before her, she lived her final years in Europe, unwilling to be subordinate to American racism.
A discussion of Simone’s history with mental illness occurs near the end of the film, when Kelly talks about discovering that her mother – who in rage dished abuse out to her daughter – suffered from manic depression. Under the influence of the then-new medication Trilafon, which helped her manage the worst of her symptoms, Simone began performing in a series of concerts which restored her reputation.
Unfortunately, the side-effects of the medication reduced her motor skills and slurred her speech. This is very noticeable in the later performances and interviews shown in the film. At the end of her life it seems that she had finally found a routine and way of living that allowed her to support herself and obtain a certain level of stability.
The film has its omissions – for all the talk of how Simone could be aggressive, even violent, there is no mention at all of her infamous attempt to shoot a record company executive whom she believed was stealing her royalties – but coming in at under two hours, some absences were inevitable. There is also a fine line between exploring such a large life and adding fuel to the fires of legend which tend to obscure the real person.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, ‘There are no second acts in American lives.’ It becomes clear that the life of Nina Simone was a life that could have lived up to the most dramatic of operas.
Following a path of rising and falling, rising and falling, Simone’s legacy seems to be almost in danger of being lost to people today who cannot understand the depth she held as an artist.
In a podcast released by The New Yorker several months ago, multiple contributors made the point that performers and musicians today are much more hesitant to take up a social cause or reflect the less-than-fun spirit of their times, citing Beyoncé and Jay-Z as prime examples. Compared to the influence of Simone and performers like Harry Bellefonte (who has also made this criticism in interviews), music today is less engaged with current events.
Simone was never as widely popular as today’s music power-couple – Simone only had one top 20 hit in her lifetime – but the awareness she brought to civil rights issues made her an icon and transcended financial success.
One would think that the political concerns she expressed circa 1967 would seem too distant for most listeners to connect with, but when one hears Simone discussing the genesis behind her song ‘Young, Gifted and Black’, the connection is instantly accessible. One can quite easily imagine the words #BlackLivesMatter being added to the cover of the old 78-single without seeming out of place.
That such a message needs to be repeated today – or could be seen as radical still – makes a deep point about where the United States stands.
Nina Simone was one those rare artists who can be said to have been possessed by genius. She had a voice and a style which was instantaneously recognisable – if you hear her once you know her voice forever. It is a shame that more people cannot instantly recall her name, though her music has been used in films and commercials for decades now.
The controversy which arose over the use of her rendition of ‘Strange Fruit’ by Kanye West in his 2013 song ‘Blood on the Leaves’ suggests though that the fans of Simone are rising up to demand the recognition and respect she once had be restored.
A voice in many ways ahead of her times, Americans might just now be catching up to the talent and intensity Simone displayed. As a testament to her life, What Happened, Miss Simone? begins the work needed in order to give her the respect that is long overdue.