Liz Garbus‘ What Happened, Miss Simone? is a sad, absorbing, expertly assembled doc about the legendary Nina Simone (1933-2003), one of the greatest genius-level jazz-soul singers of the 20th Century as well as a classically trained pianist extraordinaire. Garbus is obviously a huge Simone fan, and she makes her case for — draws you into — this flawed, impassioned artist with skill and flair. Pic opened the 2015 Sundance Film Festival on Thursday night at the Eccles.
So Garbus’ film has the expertise and the feeling and the spirit. No one who sees it will leave feeling under-nourished. But I also found What Happened, Miss Simone? irksome because of several biographical facts that Garbus inexplicably leaves out. (Her birth year, the cause of her death, her first marriage, a shooting incident, etc.) I also found Simone herself a bit of a hurdle. Her lack of respect and reverence for her extraordinary singing gifts as well as a general indifference to the basics of maintaining a healthy career is perplexing and even alienating. Maybe it’s me but it’s hard to warm up to, much less feel a kinship with, haughty aloofness, a hair-trigger temperament and self-destructive behavior.
But oh, those pipes, that phrasing, that style…that magnificent, touched-by-God aura.
If anyone lived up to the term “tortured artist,” it was Nina Simone. She suffered from manic-depression (not diagnosed until the mid ’80s) and was chronically twitchy and unsettled and, like many gifted artists, no day at the beach. And though for the noblest of reasons, she more or less torpedoed her career after blending her music with radical movement politics beginning in the late ’60s, which diminished her popularity.
Simone’s spiritual undercurrent was obviously considerable, but her life was dogged by volatility. There were occasional violent episodes, including a shooting. Her load in life wasn’t exactly lessened by an intense, highly troubled marriage to Andrew Stroud, a Manhattan detective who became her manager and later her physical abuser, apparently at times with Simone a half-willing participant.
I would have responded a bit more fully if Garbus had simply chosen to explain more. This is one of those docs that light a match but leave you wondering “why?” and “what the fuck?” at the same time. The second it ended I went right to Simone’s Wikipedia page to find out the whole story.
But the film is honest and penetrating as far as it goes, and for most viewers it’ll be impossible to take the Simone journey and not be moved to…well, perhaps not the depths of their souls but in that general vicinity.
Incidentally: This Blackfilm story about Zoe Saldana‘s Nina biopic, posted by Wilson Morales on 6.49.14, indicates that the film is some kind of disaster.