Throughout music history, there have been precious few artists reaching the level of musician extraordinaire. Musicians who stood out from the pack due to their sheer genius artistry and who, though never settling for just making pop music, still managed to become legends.
After viewing the 2015 documentary on the life and times of Nina Simone, it’s arguable that the reputed “High Priestess of Soul” fit that narrative perfectly. With that said, welcome to our honest review of “What Happened, Miss Simone?”
The film, consisting of over 100 minutes of clips and commentary from the lips of Simone, her friends, family, and colleagues, does a great job of outlining the singer’s life, from her modest beginnings and sharp rise to stardom to her tumultuous downfall and, in her later years, salvation.
The documentary starts at the very beginning, when Simone, born Eunice Waymon, started performing - like so many other music greats - in church. Her metamorphosis from a poor, young black girl, to a top-selling artist, forms a tale that is compelling, intriguing, and inspiring to aspiring songwriters and musicians while giving a glimpse of how the rigors of show business can affect their mental well-being.
In fact, “What Happened, Miss Simone?” is not only a life story of a musical legend, it’s a pertinent snapshot that can be applied to the lives of musicians who have fallen by the wayside, sucked in by the rough and tumble world of the music industry and succumbing to one or more of its many pressures.
Brilliantly directed by Liz Garbus, the bio-doc does a good job of juxtaposing Simone's brilliance and high points of her life with her shortcomings and downfall. Here's our breakdown of the main parts.
- The early years
Amidst clips of pre-World War Two America, “What Happened, Miss Simone?” paints a clear enough picture of the society that shaped Simone’s childhood as she grew up in North Carolina. One which, though racially segregated, allowed her musical talents to be discovered and nurtured at an early stage. “I started to play the piano when I was 3 or 4,” notes Simone, in a clip lifted from one of her many interviews.
She later reveals how she was guided and mentored by a music teacher, Mrs. Mazzanovich, who happened to be white, and who fed her musical appetite on Bach, Beethoven, and other classical greats. One of the high points of the documentary, it not only explains how Simone became a skilled pianist, it possibly also highlights how her views on race relations were shaped, and why she eventually turned to making civil rights music at the zenith of her career.
For as much as Simone was shown love and guidance (Mrs. Mazzanovich, who Simone described as pleasant, helped set up the Eunice Waymon fund, which sent the young prodigy to Juilliard after graduating high school) by someone from across the racial divide, the air of racism was always not too far away. She notes how she was always mindful of it, even though she wasn’t allowed to discuss anything ‘racial’ in her parents’ house. In addition, Simone’s early awareness of being alone is highlighted in her interviews, noting how 7-8 hours of practicing daily isolated her from other kids her age, regardless of color.
Racism and loneliness aside, Simone’s early life motivations are shown to have hinged on the goal (reinforced by Mrs. Mazzanovich) to become the world’s first female, black classical pianist.
- Becoming Nina Simone
The issue of racism is a common theme throughout the movie. Simone is convinced that it reared its ugly head when she was turned down for a scholarship at the Curtis Institute. But it's at this point in the documentary where barely-adult Simone realizes she needed to grow up, and quickly. The idea of stepping out of her cocoon, regardless of how fragile, to face the real world, is driven home forcefully, as the film follows Simone’s early trek through post-World War New York City to a bar in Atlantic City, where she realizes that not only does she have to put her dreams on hold, she has to go to work. On top of that, she had to start doing something she had never done before: sing.
Viewers quickly find out how Eunice Waymon becomes Nina Simone – her religious upbringing (her mother was a preacher) clashing with the fact that she had to perform in a bar, doing secular music to make money. Hence, the name Nina (a nickname given to her by a former boyfriend) was attached to Simone (borrowed from a French actress). At this stage, the documentary also brings into focus the people who help to guide Simone into the next phase – becoming a musical star. Enter Al Shackman, a guitarist and musical director, and George Wein, who put Simone on the roster of his Newport Jazz Festival and helped expose her immense talent to the world.
Amid hit record releases, including songs such as “I Loves You Porgy,” and performances at buzzing venues such as the Playboy Mansion, Simone’s future love is introduced into the mix. It seems to be love at first sight, as Andrew "Andy" Stroud, law officer, becomes besotted with Simone, quits his job and takes it upon himself to become her manager, friend, and husband.
Snippets of interviews with Stroud, recorded years after Simone’s passing, help to bring perspective to her love life and, later, her hidden pains which precipitated her fall from grace.
- Simone’s Sadness
There is no question that there was a lot of mystery surrounding many of Nina Simone’s actions as she foraged into the areas of marriage life and near superstardom. But “What Happened, Miss Simone?” does a good job of answering the questions on the minds of many, including people from her era. Maya Angelou’s quote at the movie’s beginning sums it up nicely: Miss Simone, you are idolized, even loved by millions now. But what happened, Miss Simone?
Simone’s sadness is revealed to have stemmed from a number of factors. For one, the glamorous life she seemed to have built with Andy (including vast property, possessions, and a baby) was undercut by physical abuse and continued pressure to perform. Stroud, who admits to not only pushing her to bring home more ‘bacon,’ but also putting his hands on her, morphs from being the center of her life to the enemy of her happiness.
Before all that, Simone’s personal life was buoyed by two events. First, the birth of her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly (who features prominently in the documentary). And, secondly, the chance to perform at her dream venue, Carnegie Hall, albeit not as the classical pianist she had dreamed of becoming. Slowly but surely, these high points in her life turned to resentment – to Andy and the music business.
Resentment turned to fear and depression, which was manifested in Simone lashing out from time to time. While viewers would expect a turning point at this juncture, things get worse before getting better. Reports of physical abuse at the hands of Andy are confirmed by daughter Lisa, as well as Shackman, with the latter detailing one instance when Simone sought refuge at his home after being badly beaten. Still, the documentary outlines one of the mysteries of domestic abuse - the victim going back to the abuser - with Simone reconciling with Andy, seemingly out of a twisted sense of devotion and the thought process that he abused her out of love.
- Civil Rights Activism
“What Happened, Miss Simone?” dives deeply into Simone’s foray into the civil rights movement of the day and how she became one of its champions. It came at a time when, at the ripe age of thirty (and trying to cope with the pressures of marriage life), she needed an antidote to combat the feeling that “something was missing.” News of a church bombing in Birmingham, which killed four black girls and wounded many other young blacks, is revealed as the catalyst for Simone to add her voice.
“First you get depressed, then you get mad,” states Simone, outlining her shift from writing and performing mellow jazz numbers about love, to penning bruising songs such as “Mississippi, Goddamn.” That track would turn out to be a hit, not with mainstream radio, but with the activist community, in reaction to racial injustices of the day. Looking at her performance of this particular song compared to other performances during the documentary, you get the feeling that this is where Simone truly finds her calling – the missing piece from her life.
Not only that, she starts meeting new people. Langston Hughes, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X, as well as writers and poets, are a few of the people mentioned. These people turn out to actually be interested in what she has to say and share her passion, and not just her money-making potential. This period is depicted as another high point in Simone’s life, bearing fruit in the form of black power anthems such as “Backlash Blues” and “Young, Gifted and Black,” songs coming from her association with her new found friends.
However, as the tape rolls on, it becomes clear that Simone’s passion became anger, especially after she formed an alliance with Stokely Carmichael, a strident soldier of the civil rights movement. It is here that her past brushes with racism truly comes to the fore, her bottled up feelings gushing out in violent verbal outbursts, mixed in with her music. According to Andy, this new direction was in alignment with the extremist arm of the movement – the side that believed in combating racial injustice with violence.
The language here and narrative creeping into Simone’s music becomes dark and ugly, perhaps also reflective of the seriousness of the times and her willingness to address it all through her music. “How can you be an artist and not reflect the times,” she muses during one of her interviews.
- Fall from grace
“What Happened, Miss Simone?” does a good job of highlighting the mood and happenings of the civil rights period of the 1960s, and showing how the events impacted Nina Simone’s illustrious life. One of the pivotal events, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, is intertwined with her downward spiral, a culmination of her marital woes and her brokenness inside. This period is marked by her finally gathering the courage to leave Andy and leave the shores of the U.S. (which she is said to describe as the United ‘Snakes’ of America) altogether.
She deems a relocation to Liberia as a happy period, but it also marked the start of one of the lowest points in her life (and of the documentary). Now without her friends to keep her grounded, Simone loses grip of things that mattered, such as paying taxes and going after performances and, simply just making money.
Later on, she seeks to find her footing in Europe as she gets close to rock bottom in Liberia, but to no avail. It's at this point in the documentary that Nina Simone's actions are fully placed under the microscope. Simone herself does not express regret for being part of the civil rights movement but realizes the damage some of the songs she chose to do had done to her career. She's shown to go from riches to rags and, in addition to being faced with ending up broke and alone, her behavior gets worse as the movie follows her life to the streets of Paris.
Like many great stories, “What Happened, Miss Simone?” is a tale of triumph. Notwithstanding the erratic behavior of Simone (she is later diagnosed to suffer from bipolar disorder and manic depression), the film eventually gets to how she is rescued from ruin by old friends and her second coming.
As the movie winds down, Simone, now wise but still somewhat untamed, begins her journey back towards her glory days of selling out concerts and mystifying audiences with her sublime piano skills. Now with her new found diagnosis (bipolar disease was new to the world at the time), Simone's resurgence was aided by medication and a promise to her friends, which she seemingly held on to until her passing in 2003.
Though she never truly got the chance to fulfill her childhood to become the first, black female classical pianist, Nina Simone still left an indelible mark on the world with her music. One could argue that she did, in fact, accomplish the feat, her unmatched skills evident in clips of her performances during the documentary. On top of that, she set herself apart as a world-class entertainer and icon of excellence among the black community and, by extension, among the music elite.
A winner of an Emmy Award for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special, “What Happened, Miss Simone?” is worth the watch, whether you're a blues/jazz fan or not, and whether you have ever heard about Nina Simone or not (although that's highly unlikely). You can check out “What Happened, Miss Simone?” on Netflix. « return to blog