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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.
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.