All posts by Scott

A good day for Sojourn

Tonight at church, we had a member meeting where we talked about the many things that have been going on in and around the church over the past months.

It was our first member meeting in the new building, and it was cool to know that this was our space. And it made me proud to see how well everything is being cared for. From the stately new sign out on Rudy Lane to the mulch around the edges of the sanctuary to the new paint and tiles inside the building and along the hallways, it reminded me of when Angell and I went from being renters to being homeowners. You relate to your living space differently when you own it and are paying the mortgage.

Kevin and Jeremy caught us up on some administrative stuff having to do with amendments to the governing structure of the church. Sojourn has four campuses, and in the past, it was governed centrally from the midtown campus, with J-Town, East and New Albany serving as outposts, like forts out on the frontier.

With the changes, Sojourn is now 4 interdependent churches that are governed locally, but overseen by a leadership council.

Also, in the past, Sojourn’s offices were all located at Midtown. This included the campus pastors, which always struck me as weird. Now, the campus pastors (actually, the term campus no longer exists) have their offices at their local churches, which seems to me a good thing. Being IN the neighborhood where they work helps them be more in tune with the neighborhood and what’s going on around there.

We welcomed around 70 new members and said goodbye to a few, who are moving to new states and new jobs.

What made me most proud was to see my friend Mike Cosper introduce his new project – The Harbor Institute for Faith and Culture.

Harbor, as we call it, is a new media platform that produces resources for Christians trying to make sense of what it means to live out their faith in a post-Christian society.

What that means is this:

In decades past, it seemed (at least on the surface) that much of mainstream America’s values and Christian values were one and the same. This notion is very much up for debate, but in the sense of a somewhat puritanical moral code we can make the argument that this was sometimes at least the case.

Fast forward to today, when Christian values are more and more coming to rest at the fringes of what is considered normal and acceptable behavior and thought in today’s culture. Harbor exists to help Christians navigate this ever-shifting landscape.

I’m excited for Mike and proud of this move to fill a very necessary void in media for Christians. I’m also excited to be working with Mike and a few others to help support this vision. In the coming months, look for the launch of a blog, a podcast and, later in the year, the first of some live events.

After the meeting, Angell and I strolled through a courtyard and thought ahead to a day in the not-too-distant future when our daughters might one day marry in this sanctuary and run the gauntlet of rice-throwing well-wishers to a waiting limo. It was sweet to think about, and good to know we all have a church home.

There’s a lot of good stuff going on at Sojourn, and it’s a great time to be a member. I look forward to seeing what’s in store in the year’s ahead.

How to eliminate ads from Pixlr for Macbook

All the images you see on this blog are edited using Pixlr, which is a suite of free, cloud-based image editing tools that are awesome.

The only problem with Pixlr is the ads that hog up a big section of the workspace. This tutorial shows you how to get rid of those ads.

Peyton Manning and the power of denial

By all accounts, Peyton Manning is a smart businessman, with an estimated net worth of $191 million. At the conclusion of last night’s Super Bowl game, there was a much joked about kiss on the cheek given to Papa John’s CEO John Schnatter, a business partner. A few moments after that, in an on-field interview and then later, in an interview with CBS’ Jim Nance, on the Super Bowl award podium, Manning was asked about his future. His response, in both situations, seemed to be a well-rehearsed spiel about first-things-first, which included kissing his wife and kids, celebrating with teammates and drinking a lot of Budweiser beer.

Say what?

That’s right. It seems that Budweiser and Manning cooked up a little deal wherein the Super Bowl winner, on the biggest platform in sports, would pimp Budweiser beer the way MVP’s used to pimp Disney World. With some athletes, the move might appear wooden and contrived, but the winsome Manning pulled it off as though kicks back with a six-pack of Bud after EVERY game. Shrewd move.

Where Manning may not be so smart is in deciding whether this is the time to retire from the game. To be fair, it’s not a cognitive problem, but one of emotions and denial, as in the stages of grief kind of denial. You see, Peyton Manning is facing the inevitable question that every professional athlete has to face at some point in his or her career – “When is it over?”

A couple of weeks ago, former New York Giants and Oakland Raiders lineman Justin Tuck called it quits. In an interview with a sports talk radio outfit, he admitted that physically, he still had some mileage left on the tires, but mentally he was done. Further, he’d made a deal with himself some time earlier, he said, where he’d hang it up when he wasn’t able to fully commit physically and mentally. This year, that bell went off and he honored the contract he made to himself. He leaves the game happy, fairly healthy and free from regrets or embarrassment for having stuck around too long with diminished skills.

Peyton Manning
Peyton Manning gives business partner Papa John Schnatter a peck on the cheek after winning Super Bowl L

Justin Tuck is part of a minority of professional athletes who look at the game from a rational standpoint and try and keep emotions from the decision of when it’s time to retire. Of course, most professional football players are pushed out of the league against their will, either because of substandard performance or injury (the average NFL career is 3.3 years).

Of those who are fortunate enough to avoid injury and sustain a lengthy career in the league, many if not most stick around past their prime. And why not? It’s nearly impossible not to merge one’s identity with career, and in the case of pro athletes, those careers extend back to elementary school and Pop Warner Football leagues. A 35 year old football player with diminishing skills may find it impossible to imagine doing anything else when he’s been known as a stud player for 25 of those years.

So the temptation – the denial part of the equation – is to stay around just a little longer. Work a little harder. Take on a different role. Do whatever it takes to stay in the only game you know just one season longer. It’s a deal with the devil that has played out sadly for many a pro athlete. I think of Joe Namath, O.J. Simpson and Brett Favre, just to name a few, who in their final season were mere shadows of their former selves. Because they didn’t have a Plan-B for their lives, they risked further damage to their bodies, not to mention their reputations, by struggling to stick around – usually with a shitty team.

Once Peyton Manning finishes kissing and hugging and high-fiving and drinking all that Budweiser, he’ll have to make a big decision to make. After last night’s game, I doubt there’s a sports fan alive that thinks or hopes he’ll come back for another season. I’d bet a year’s salary that the Broncos don’t want him back as a player. The decision seems pretty cut-and-dry, but when you’re facing a watershed moment as big as this, it’s not a rational decision. It’s emotional. And Peyton Manning is famous for his love of and devotion to the game of football.

The good news is, he’s already built his next phase career track, with all the Papa John’s franchises and other deals he surely has going. Let’s hope, for his sake, that Manning can be like Justin Tuck and fight through the emotions and see just what a gift he’s been given in being able to go out on top, as the champion of the world.

I’m betting he will.

Brooklyn

Brooklyn, story about a young Irish woman leaving her family behind to forge a new life for herself in the America of the early 1950’s, is old-fashioned movie making in the best sense of the term.

BrooklynThe film, directed by John Crowley (Boy A, Intermission) and adapted by Nick Hornby (About a Boy, An Education, High Fidelity) from the novel by Colm Tóbín, is a nostalgic take on a story as old as America itself – reinvention.

Eillis Lacy (Saorise Ronan) lives in a small post-war Irish town. Her father is dead, and she lives with her mother and older sister Rose (Fiona Glascott), who cares for them both. Her future is so bleak that she agrees to have an Irish priest living in New York arrange a job and living arrangements for her, in hopes of creating a better life there.

Eillis (pronounced Á-lish) feels guilty about leaving her sister with the burden of caring for their mother, but Rose has carved out a nice life for herself, and won’t hear of any guilty talk. It’s a difficult parting and a rougher ocean crossing, but Eillis makes it to Ellis Island and her new life.

At first, the new world is jarring. The boarding house is a strange place, ruled by a loud woman, Mrs. Keogh (Julie Walters), and occupied by a chorus of lonely women who eventually grown on Eillis.

The job that has been arranged for her – a position as a shop girl at a fancy department store – is yet another adjustment. Eillis’ supervisor (Mad Men’s Jessica Paré) is a tough, serious woman who insists on having her customers treated as special friends, but Eillis is so homesick, that can’t see through the fog of tears that constantly fill her eyes.

But things aren’t what they seem. Eillis’ supervisor calls the priest, Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), after an especially rough day, and he meets with her in the breakroom of the store and dispenses some priestly wisdom. “Homesickness is like any other sickness. It eventually passes and moves on to someone else.” He assures her it will be okay, but he has more than just kind words. He’s also arranged for night classes at Brooklyn College, which will allow her to study bookkeeping.

With this bit of good news, the clouds begin to lift. Back at the boarding house, the girls and Mrs. Keogh have begun to warm up to their quiet new neighbor. Enough so that they all hang out together at the weekly parish dance, where Eillis meets a boy one Friday night.

This is where the movie really turns. The boy, an Italian named Tony (Emory Cohen), cruises the Irish dances because he prefers Irish girls to the same old Italian girls available at the Italian version of the parish dance.

It’s a meet-cute moment that works for the innocence of these two. They are each so earnest and decent, you can’t help but root for them (even though you’ve been conditioned by movies and TV series to expect some underlying perversion).

The romance escalates to the point of a funny dinner with Tony’s family that is concluded by him walking Eillis home and telling her he loves her for the first time. It’s an awkward moment because Eillis doesn’t know how to respond. She’s never been in this position before. It’s yet another new experience for her.

As their love blossoms, a complication arises when Eillis’ sister Rose dies, perhaps from an illness she kept from everyone so that Eillis could be turned loose to live her own life.

Eillis returns home to mourn with her mother, but not before being persuaded to marry Tony before leaving. Tony feared that once back home, Eillis would never leave. Being first or second generation American, he probably knew something about the power of Home. Eillis agrees, and the go to the courthouse and marry in secret just before she returns to Ireland.

Back in Ireland, she finds that little has changed and everything has changed. Having come from America, everyone looks at her anew. It’s as if she’s being noticed for the very first time. Boys want to date her. Rose’s old employer wants to hire her, knowing she has a bookkeeping certificate. It’s like an Irish Tractor Beam has been turned on to keep her from returning to New York.

To complicate matters even more, a nice boy with a secure financial future falls for her, which her mother seizes on as a sign that things are looking up for “them.”

Eillis is torn between love and guilt, old and new, the past and the future as she struggles with a riot of emotions that have caught her completely off-guard. Finally, a voice from the past rears her ugly head, bringing everything to a head.

Saorise Ronan is a delight to watch in the role of Eillis. One of the many pleasures of Brooklyn is its comfort with silence, which it uses like white space on a printed page, and Ronan’s use of silence speaks volumes in subtext in the way she uses her eyes and body to tell stories and convey the inner dialogue that rages inside this thoughtful woman. Her Oscar nomination is well deserved. There will surely be many more to come.

Emory Cohen, a relative newcomer, also walks a thin line, playing a sweet, decent man without falling into treacly obnoxiousness that would have us rooting for Eillis to stay in Ireland. I look forward to seeing what’s next for him.

The supporting cast of Brooklyn was marked by one fine performance after another, from the girls at the boarding house to Domhnall Gleeson as Eillis’ Irish suitor. But it’s Julie Walters and Jim Broadbent who do standout work as Mrs. Keogh and Father Flood.

Walters’ comic timing is put to good use as the fearsome proprietor of the boarding house who dotes on Eillis as a “sensible girl.” Walters takes the role up to the point of caricature, but when it seems she’s about to take it to cartoonishness, she softens the woman and gives her a vulnerable twist that completely humanizes the old woman.

Similarly, Broadbent conveys a decency in the old priest that conveys a sense of how Christians should be – loving, wise, humble and charitable people.

Looking at the construction of Brooklyn, on paper it seems like a movie that might be better suited for the Hallmark channel for all its sweetness, but the quality of the storytelling, direction, art direction and especially the acting give it the boost it needs to transcend sentimentality and achieve a kind of sweet grace that will have the hardest of hearts wiping away tears.

As Brooklyn reaches its inevitable conclusion, we are given a reminder of one of the things that makes America so great – here, you can be whoever you say you are. There’s no guarantees, and it doesn’t come cheaply, but if you are willing to pay the steep price of turning away from home, it could happen.

Your candidate can’t/won’t save you

Facebook and politics is a bad match. Like bourbon and ice cream. To open Facebook is to risk political assault. Most of my friends are people I’ve known my whole life, and aside from an educated guess, I couldn’t tell you the political affiliations of most to save my life. That is, until Facebook came along.

Folks who are so kind and gracious in person devolve into raving maniacs on Facebook, when it comes to posting diatribes against Obama, Trump, Clinton or Sanders. Lately, it’s gotten so bad that I’ve about come to the point where I want to cut the cord on Facebook and be done with it. If it wasn’t for totally losing track with people I never see otherwise, I’d do it.

Thankfully, some smart programmer came up with the unfollow button, which brings instant relief when the screaming becomes too shrill to bear.

It seems that people are more frustrated, more disgusted, more hateful and more insistent than ever before. And as this happens, those who engage in this sort of virtual screaming are more convinced than ever before that THIS is the election that will either set us back on the right course or tighten the death spiral.

What’s puzzling is that my Christian friends engage in this behavior, which reminds me of the Israelites circa I Samuel 8 who were convinced that a mighty, politically savvy king was the answer to all their problems.

Anyone familiar with the Old Testament knows that this was a bad idea. This reliance on political solutions to their problems was evidence of an inner, spiritual rot that was taking place. They were turning their back on the same God that had delivered them from Egypt and promised to always look out for their best interests.

But the world is a seductive place. It always has been.

And just as the Israelites learned the hard way that political might doesn’t make ultimate right, so too should Christians understand that the winner of the next election might do many things, but delivering us from evil ain’t one of them.

Should we engage in politics, if God is ultimately in control? Of course. But we shouldn’t become mini-jihadists on Facebook and elsewhere, trying to beat those who disagree with us into submission. Even if we know we are right. Especially if we know we are right. We need look no further than Jesus himself to see the model for persuading our friends with love and patience and grace. If the God of the universe chose not to wrestle us into a chokehold and make us cry uncle, who are we to do this?

So hey Christians, why don’t we use Facebook for what it was made for – voyeurism and memes.

The genius of NFL Films

I wrote this piece a couple of years ago to promote the practice of content marketing. With the Super Bowl coming up, it seemed kind of timely to re-print it here.

NFL Game of the WeekAs I was watching football this weekend, I got to thinking about how we talk about football on Mondays at work.

Football is a game of tactical maneuvers, defensive adjustments, explosive violence and, at times, great beauty. And when we gather with our co-workers on Monday mornings, we weave facts and statistics into a narrative of what happened in a way that can be quite moving.

Think about it. We put no conscious effort into fabricating a complex story made up of dozens of men, complex play calling, yards gained and lost, passes completed versus passes attempted, and we do it in a compelling way that gets the blood boiling 24 hours after the fact. And yet, we often fail to move our readers when we apply the same storytelling skills to the copy we write for our customers.

I won’t get into why that’s so except to follow the breadcrumb trail of thoughts that led me back through the years to my boyhood and the genesis of the storytelling tropes that enliven discussions of professional football and served as the template for sports networks like ESPN.

I’m talking about NFL Films.

I grew up in Louisville in the 70’s with a lot of boys my age. We were into football, basketball and baseball and each had its own well-defined season. While each sport had great announcers who added drama and gravitas to the games they called, there was nothing in the world like NFL Films, which existed solely to promote the brand of the NFL, but inspired me and my friends to imitate, in mock slow-motion, improbable runs, catches and passes made by our heroes. It was propaganda 101, but we didn’t care. It was glorious.

NFL Films and the cult of football

The genius of NFL FilmsNFL films was founded by Ed Sabol, who, according to Wikipedia, was a dad who liked to film his son Steve’s football games and discovered he had a knack for it. In 1962, Sabol won the bidding rights to shoot the championship game and impressed Pete Rozelle, the young league commissioner who revolutionized the game with many innovations.

The NFL bought Sabol’s company and left him in charge to film every game and produce highlight reels for each team. What evolved was an operatic style that featured Wagnerian music, stentorian narrations and lots-and-lots of slow-motion photography that inspired generations of wannabe all-stars. Looking at the clips on YouTube now, I’m filled with a mixture of elation and mild embarrassment at how serious every facet of the game was taken.

If you’re in your thirties or forties and grew up on NFL Films, you’ll know what I mean when I say that I still get teary-eyed when I watch Willie Brown’s pick-six of Fran Tarkenton in Super Bowl XI.

How they did it

So, what does NFL Films do so well? Why is their stuff some of the best, if not THE best, content marketing ever produced? Let’s take a look.

  • Relevant. For me and my friends, who loved the game and had the stats of our favorite players committed to memory, the NFL was one of the biggest things in our lives for half the year.
  • Regular. For about six months out of the year, me and my friends were glued to the TV every weekend, waiting for new highlights. Today, the NFL is a year-round endeavor, bigger than ever, with 24 hour sports networks clamoring for content.
  • High Quality. Ed Sabol, followed by his son Steve, set a standard for quality in sports cinematography, especially where slow-motion was concerned. It could be argued that NFL Films made the NFL what it is today.
  • Helpful. For young boys interested in learning the game, NFL Films was useful in not only teaching the basics of how to play the game, but also for teaching the culture of the game. NFL Films indoctrinated millions of people into the cult of professional football.
  • Engaging. With its mix of music, slow-motion photography and stirring narration from voices like voice-of-god John Facenda, NFL Films set the gold standard for engagement in sports broadcasting.
  • CallTo-Action. NFL Films never failed to leave me wanting more. The call-to-action is to watch the NFL, to root for the NFL and even to live the NFL…and for initiated, me and my friends were happy to oblige.

Some may shrug their shoulders and say, “People don’t get worked up about companies or brands the way they do about football.” Really? What about Apple? What about Chevy vs. Ford? What about Nike?

People care about products just as much as football fans do about their favorite teams…when they’re given something worth cheering about.

How about you? What do your customers say about you on Monday mornings?

So much gratitude

My heart is filled with such gratitude this evening.

For starters, I just got off the phone with my oldest daughter, who’s a sophomore at Asbury University. She wanted to bounce an idea for a school project off me. It’s a documentary that involves some sensitive family history, and she wanted to know if I thought the family members involved would be down with participating in the project.

The conversation was priceless to me for many reasons. First, it was great just to talk to her and hear her voice and know by the sound of it that she was happy. Also, it made me feel so good that she called me to consult on a project in her life – a storytelling project, no less! As a parent, you go through those teen years where your kids like to pretend they’re orphans and avoid answering the least little question about how they’re feeling about anything. When they come out the other side and start to relate to you on an adult level and respect your insights into the minutiae of their daily lives…well, that’s special. Finally, I’ll say that the call was special because of the intimacy it afforded – to have this project to talk about while really practicing love with one another. As father and daughter. As human and human. As storyteller and storyteller.

She told me about the one project, then told me about three others. Her class watched the documentary Helvetica today in class. We’ve attempted to watch it together a few times, but have never made it all the way through together. I saw it years ago, and now that she’s seen it, we were able to talk about stuff like Vignelli and his signage for the New York subway system and geeky stuff like that that we both love and can use to bond over.

She also emailed me a couple of design projects she did for class. One was an exercise in using a grid system to layout a page (yet another reference to Vignelli!), where she was only allowed to use the Helvetica font and some preset text. She had three different pages with completely different looks with the same text. I thought it was great.

The last project was a poster describing herself that everyone had to do. Hadley’s was very simply laid out, with skyscrapers representing her love of New York, augmented with some simple text gathered from a personality profile she’d taken that interpreted her personality. I loved it, too.

I’m such a doting father, I know, but I can’t help it. Everyone should have a daughter like this kid.

Finally, it was time to let her go so she could get to her work and I could get to mine. I hate saying goodbye, but we both have miles to go before we sleep and all that crap.

If that weren’t enough, a good friend came over to drink a few beers and swap stories. Angell cooked a fine dinner of Mediterranean food, and we ate our fill and drank around the first fire of the season in our den.

We both have very busy lives, so getting together like this is no small task. The visits are infrequent, and we simply talk about where we are and go from there, free from the pressures of posing or fear of judgment. We can let it all hang out and let the words that have been swirling around inside our heads get out into the ether and breathe a little and maybe mix with the words of the other.

Good conversation is hard to come by and often longed for. Tonight, I’m grateful for having had my fill.

Yes, indeed. So much to be grateful for.

A new home

Last Sunday, January 31, marked Sojourn East’s first Sunday in our new, permanent home.

For years, we’ve met in an old Catholic parish just a 7 minute walk from my house, and though I’ll miss the convenience, it’s great to finally have a place to call home.

Equipped with my iPhone, I captured a few moments of our first service at the former Calvin Presbyterian Church on Rudy Lane. Forgive the quality….

A new challenge

The year is 1/12 over, and so far, I’ve kept my challenge of blogging something…anything…every day. 31 days, 31 blog posts. For the blog posts, the focus has been on quantity, not necessarily quality. As with any workout regimen, the first challenge is just doing it, so the blogging challenge is all about re-creating the discipline of creating, of making things every day.

Now that I’ve gotten that habit established, it’s time to think about quality.

The blogging will continue for at least the next 11 months, but I want to add another wrinkle to this challenge. To set the stage, I need to digress.

Larry Brown is one of my favorite writers. Back when he died in 2004 at the agonizingly young age of 53, I was getting up at 5:00 on workday mornings to go to Heine Brothers Coffee to write for 60-90 minutes before going to work. I’d even sneak off to write on weekends and holidays when my family would allow it.

On November 26 of that year, I rode over to Heine Brothers and got a coffee and the Arts section of The New York Times like I did each morning to shake out the cobwebs of the night’s sleep. When I sat down and opened the Arts section, what greeted me was the news of Brown’s death. When one of your heroes dies, it’s a tough blow to absorb.

I tell that story because it meant that the bucket of interviews, written and/or videotaped, would never increase. What was was all there ever would be. As the years have gone by, I’ve periodically searched YouTube to see if any new Larry Brown footage has surfaced, but each time I look, I find the same videos.

Larry Brown has been on my mind for a few days, and today I did that YouTube search and watched a few of those treasured videos and listened to Brown’s wisdom on persevering in the face of reason and adversity. It helps.

In a nutshell, his story goes something like this:

Larry Brown was born on July 9, 1951, in Oxford, Mississippi, about as famous a writer’s town as any in the country. But he wasn’t born into a literary family. Rather, Brown’s family seems like a bunch conjured up in a Faulkner novel. His father was a hard-drinking sharecropper. His mother was a shopkeeper and postmaster.

Brown managed to graduate high school in 1969 and serve a hitch in the Marines before coming home to a string of dead-end jobs. In the early ‘70’s, Brown joined the Oxford Fire Department, where he worked for 16 years.

When he turned 30, Brown decided to teach himself how to write. He was an avid reader, but when he made that fateful choice, his tastes ran to Stephen King and trashy page-turners. He carved out a quiet place in his house, and between there and his off hours at the fire house, Larry Brown taught himself to write by trial and error.

In one of those YouTube videos, Brown says that to have read a story from those first few years, one would have no choice but to come to the conclusion that there was no talent there. He admits, without a hint of irony or a self-deprecating wink, that the stories were awful. But he also says that something deep inside him knew that if he had the guts to put in the time and face the pain of repeated refection and failure, eventually it would all click and he’d understand how to write good stories.

And so it was that 8 years after embarking on a journey to become a writer that Larry Brown was “discovered” by Algonquin Books. Even so, he didn’t trust the success and didn’t quit his fireman’s gig until he had a few books under his belt.

Larry Brown is my patron saint of writing. Cormac McCarthy my write prettier sentences, and Ken Kesey may have had more soul, but Brown speaks to the scared little boy, the underdog from PRP and the under-practiced amateur in me. Brown presents himself as the encouraging big brother – “Hey, if I can do it, so can you, man. You just have to put in the hours and bleed.” That guy. My guy.

And so it is that I come back to Larry Brown once again to find encouragement after having stepped away from the pain a spell. This time, I want to stay for good, so I’m setting goals and shooting my mouth off about it, an old motivational trick I’ve always used to paint myself into a corner that requires action or embarrassment for having not followed through on my boast.

Today is February 1, a nice round number, and my goal is to write at least one short story each month for the remainder of the year. I don’t know if I’ll post them. We’ll see about that. If any are good enough, I’ll submit them around and write about what happens with that process. If any of them suck, I’ll just bury them in a folder on my MacBook and be satisfied with having hit my number for that month.

Wish me luck.

What Happened, Miss Simone?

What Happened, Miss Simone? Is a familiar story powerfully told in this Oscar nominated documentary from Liz Garbus (Bobby Fischer Against the World, The Farm: Angola, USA). By that, I mean this: Nina Simone’s story is familiar to those who’ve lived in close proximity to or have studied artists and the emotional makeup that often times drives them forward while also driving them mad. In the realm of popular music, Brian Wilson and Loretta Lynn come to mind.

The movie’s title, which comes from a Maya Angelou poem, drives the thesis of the film, which uses Miss Simone’s own voice in the form of interviews and concert footage to sift through the details of her remarkable life to find out just what happened.

“But what happened, Miss Simone? Specifically, what happened to your big eyes that quickly veil to hide the loneliness? To your voice that has so little tenderness, yet flows with your commitment to the battle of Life? What happened to you?” – Maya Angelou

The story opens in 1976, as Simone takes the stage at the Montreaux Jazz Festival. After she’s introduced, she takes the stage and stands at her piano in an odd pose as the applause dies down. After the room has gone silent, she remains frozen, creating an awkward moment reminiscent of Andy Kaufman-esque performance art – a move designed to seize control of the moment by putting the crowd off balance perhaps.

What Happened, Miss Simone?Finally, Simone takes her seat, and after some nervous patter and adjusting of the microphone, she acknowledges a promise made long ago never to perform at jazz festivals, once again raising that question: “What happened?!” From there, she says she’ll answer the question by taking us all the way back to the beginning, which is where Garbus takes us next, filling in the biographical details of Simone’s early life.

Nina Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina on February 21, 1933. The film hardly mentions her parents, but her mother was a Methodist minister and housemaid. Simone began taking piano lessons by the age of four and quickly showed promise at the instrument, which she played in the churches where her mother preached.

Two white women, one of whom employed Simone’s mother, saw Simone’s talents and endeavored to see that she received training, which led to a goal of Simone becoming the first African-American female classical concert pianist.

In addition to lessons, the women began a fund which was used to send Simone to Philadelphia to attend the Curtis Institute. Simone was rejected, and believed that her denial was solely based upon the color of her skin. From there, she went to Julliard, where she studied until the money ran out.

Having to earn an income, Simone began playing in nightclubs, which her mother opposed. This led to the adoption of the new name and, at the demand of a club owner, the addition of singing to her playing. Soon after, her career took off in earnest.

Because of Simone’s rigorous training, she was a hit with the jazz musicians who respected her technical ability as much as her soulful playing and singing. As the 60’s hit full swing, Simone was established as a rising star in popular music.

Along the way, she met her husband, a New York vice squad sergeant named Andy Stroud, who retired from the force and became her manager. At first, Stroud’s firm hand and devotion were welcomed by Simone, but as the years went by, their relationship became volatile and marked by physical abuse that became so bad, Simone wrote in her diary of wanting to commit suicide.

As Simone’s star rose, it was Stroud who was pushing her, keeping her to an aggressive schedule that positioned her with the jazz fans as well as the more mainstream pop fans. The money began to pour in and their coterie of friends included the biggest names in African-American culture and politics: James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X and his family, who were neighbors and confidants.

Simone and Stroud had a daughter, whom Simone formed a complicated relationship with. Wanting to be a good mother, Simone also wanted to be a star (with a busy schedule orchestrated by her husband/manager). It seems like being Miss Simone won out over being just mom most of the time.

As the 60’s were marked by the violent deaths of one African-American civil rights activist after another, not to mention the general violence against African-Americans that was occurring all over the south, the accumulative effect on Miss Simone, who became increasingly political throughout the decade, came to a head after the murder of Dr. King in 1968. As her politics, along with her music and live performances, veered towards the radical, record sales began to dwindle, as did demand for her live performances.

In 1970, Simone left Stroud, her daughter and the United States and eventually settled in Liberia for some time. At first, she seemed liberated by the freedom from responsibilities and the oppression of racism, but her inner demons seemed inescapable. As the decade wore on, the need to earn a living sent her to Europe, where bad luck, bad decisions and bad health sent Simone into a tailspin.

Simone’s bouts of “anger” devolved into madness, and with the help of an old friend/side man and a former business partner, she received medical help in the form of a diagnosis of bi-polar disorder and a regimen of prescription medication that helped her to cope while slowly destroying her motor skills in the process.

When we catch up to Simone at Montreaux in 1976, we have a different understanding of the significance of this unlikely return. Earlier, we witness an interview, where Simone expounds on the meaning of freedom. After groping for an answer, she finally settles on the answer – no fear. Having settled in on that answer, you can see that she has struck a deep nerve within herself that the interviewer completely missed.

In that 1976 performance, Simone confronts an audience member who has distracted her. When the moment passes and Simone returns to the music, she’s obviously rattled and takes a beat to re-compose herself. The look in Simone’s eye is not the same as the self-possessed artist of 1960, who’d yet to feel the crushing weight of celebrity, the crushing defeat of the murder of dear friends and the crushing accumulation of whatever those demons were that pursued her, be they mental illness or something else.

What Happened, Miss Simone? paints a vivid portrait of a sensitive artist with a towering gift who performed a profound act of fearlessness in giving us, in her art, herself.