What Happened, Miss Simone?
Directed by Liz Garbus
The film chronicles Nina Simone's journey from child piano prodigy to iconic musician and passionate activist, told in her own words.
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★★★★½ review by laird on Letterboxd
Paraphrasing a subject: "Participating in civil rights activism was rough on any family. Now imagine being a genius woman when that wasn't something society was ready to recognize... Nina Simone wasn't at odd with the times. The times were at odds with her."
Heartbreaking and beautiful. It's not going to win any awards for form, but the archival content and research more than make up for its plainness. I would have watched this as a multi-part miniseries that expanded on each part of Nina Simone's career, but as a feature length overview that appropriately focuses the majority of its time on her shift from pop-star to radical, it's still pretty great. Why isn't this in theaters?
(Just kidding, I can think of a few reasons why... America, goddamn)
★★★★ review by sprizzle on Letterboxd
If you're not familiar with Miss Nina Simone, you need to watch this documentary. Certain documentaries come out and are important. This is one of those documentaries. One of the biggest popular culture figures in the civil rights movement, Miss Simone played a crucial part in motivating young, gifted, and black students across America. She was extremely controversial, especially when her focus shifted towards a more a violent message. But she was determined to do whatever it took. If that meant losing her spotlight, so be it.
An extremely gifted musician and an even more interesting figure in American culture. The documentary does a great job of piecing together tons of old footage of Nina Simone and other public figures at the time. A great job of weaving in some made footage with the found footage. It accomplishes exactly what it wants to and I hope a lot of people get to see it.
★★★½ review by Jonathan White on Letterboxd
Yes, it is confirmed that I live under a rock. A week or so past I watched one of this year’s doc nominees, Amy, and was flabbergasted by the talent of this tortured young performer. Ok, that I could have an excuse for – I’m old, and I don’t follow the pop like I used to. But there’s no excuse for this. I grew up in the 60’s, and this is the first time I’ve heard of Nina Simone.
Miss Simone is a completely different tortured artist. As Lis Garbus’s picture paints, she’s tortured both physically and also by her inner demons. My father studied to be a concert pianist, and I know the talent and dedication needed; there’s only the 1% that can make it, and Nina Simone was that 1%. I can tell by listening to her play. The fact that her incredible voice was only found by happenstance is even more improbably astounding.
Eschewing fame for cause, especially the cause she backed, is beyond admirable. Eschewing her daughter with her decision to live abroad, maybe not so much; but since this film was produced by her daughter, there isn’t really the unbiased transparency that would be afforded the film if she didn’t. I get a bit of a ‘Mommy Dearest’ vibe here, which I shouldn’t.
An issue I had with Amy was the use of home video within the documentary. For me, it crossed a line of privacy for one now passed. Likewise here, I was quite uncomfortable with excerpts of Nina’s diary being quoted, and even being photographed. I don’t keep a diary ( hell my musings here are probably the closest record of me ), but I would be aghast if I did and it was made public after I’m gone. I have a memory box of things from my parents, who both passed many decades ago. Amongst them are letters between the two of them when they were courting. Some time ago I opened one and started to read … I just had to put it back. I knew they would never wanted me to know their intimate conversation. I keep them just so I can look at the envelope.
So, one more incredible talent, incredible artist, that I have to get to know. How many more of these surprises are to come?
What Happened, Miss Simone? did, just by chance, gave me a great treasure. My father used to practice one piece on the piano over and over; every night after he came home from work, and pretty much all day on Saturday and Sunday. He’d never play the whole thing, he’d just keep, doggedly, re-playing phrases of the piece until he felt satisfied with it. I mentioned this relentless quest for perfection in my review of Whiplash. I tried to find it after watching, but was unsuccessful. In this film, the piece was playing in the background in one scene .. I tried to Shazam it, but the dialogue over top kept it from recognizing it. It spurred me to an even more fervent search, based on the composers Simone followed.
I found it. Frederic Chopin, Polonaise No.6 In A Flat Major Op.53. It’s amazing how a great artist can bring you to tears, as it has for me with memories of my dad listening to this.
★★★½ review by matt lynch on Letterboxd
"I want to shake people up so bad."
★★★½ review by Steven Sheehan on Letterboxd
You need more than a mere 100 minutes to get beyond the surface of what made up the genius that was Nina Simone. Liz Garbus' documentary is as complicated as the beautiful woman herself; at times sending conflicting messages, at others giving us a rare insight into her glorious individualism.
Maya Angelou posed the question framed in the title, pondering a period during the 70's when Nina all but disappeared from public life. So you would think it would focus primarily on that time, yet the title feels a little too broadly spread to query the wider context of Nina's career and loses some credibility because of that. We do eventually get to hear of her departure to Africa and return back to Europe but it is more of a conclusion to the general story of her life, rather than an insight into a chapter that remains mostly a mystery.
So in that sense, the title is misleading and in general terms this never moves beyond a biog of the great woman's life. Despite its flaws, Garbus' does evoke part of her creative spirit, revealing an artist who could never exist today in this God awful image driven music industry, either at major or independent level. The footage of Nina at her piano, or embellished within the moment on stage are extremely powerful, helped along with audio and TV interviews detailing her personal thoughts. These are the clips that encapsulate best what she stood for as an artist and a human being.
A major misstep is to keep referring back to her abusive ex-husband Andrew Stroud, a tough cop who took control of both Nina's career and private life, dishing out years of savage beatings. It is a brave attempt by the director to gain insight from the inner sanctum of their marriage, a view she also gains from their only daughter Simone, who offers her perspective of growing up in the middle of her mother and fathers tumultuous relationship.
Old interviews with Stroud seem hinged on his own egotistical viewpoint, although candid about some of the abuse he handed out, mostly he recalls how without him, Nina would never have become so renowned. Without a doubt behind the scenes he helped Nina navigate the snakes and ladders of the industry but hearing it from his own mouth so often feels off, particularly given his vile treatment of the woman.
Another part that suffers due to the cramming in of her entire career is her most vital and personal. Moving from commercial success and becoming a revolutionary artist representing her culture on and off stage became more than just a concept album or occasional speech. The civil rights cause enveloped her entire life and the focus on this period is far too fleeting. As the intro to this review says, Nina's life was far too unique to condense into such a short space of time and the film suffers by not realising that.
Stunning footage aside, it struggles to get a firm grip on the drive and energy that enabled Nina to survive white America and forge such a legacy. There is also very little creative process shown, which is a poor omission really when you recall her expert lyrics and musicianship, particularly for a black woman in that period, setting a standard many have failed to come close to since.
What this documentary will hopefully do is open the eyes of a new generation to discover the power of this woman. Of course, a lighter skinned, pretty-faced Zoe Saldana has been cast to meet Hollywood expectations in the forthcoming film Nina, which will no doubt lean heavily on Simone's 'pain' but we should be grateful that some things can never be replicated and few artists will come close to the enigmatic beauty of her soul.
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