Watch the Tunes: What Happened, Miss Simone?

On March 11, 2016

There is an absurdly vast selection of music movies and documentaries available on Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, and on and on and on. But it’s hard to tell which ones are actually worth your 100 minutes. Watch the Tunes will help you pick what music doc is worth your Netflix and Chill time every weekend. This week’s edition covers What Happened, Miss Simone?.

The question posed in the title of What Happened, Miss Simone?, Liz Garbus’s excellent documentary about “the high priestess of soul,” comes from an article that Maya Angelou wrote for Redbook in 1970: “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?” The film, which was nominated for an Oscar (but lost out to eventual Watch The Tunes entry Amy), does a superb job navigating the knotty creative life of Nina Simone seeking to answer that sad question and, along the way, unexpectedly presents a unique lens through which we can view the civil rights movement.

Over the course of the film, we get the full arc of her career from the very beginning, cutting her teeth in the nightclubs of Atlantic City after her application for a scholarship at Philadelphia's prestigious Curtis Institute of Music was denied, to the bittersweet end, opting to medicate her bipolar disorder and manic depression so she can still perform but at a great physical cost. In between we find a fascinating portrayal of a complicated and creatively uncompromising woman who grew from a little girl who loved playing Bach to a woman whose songs “Mississippi Goddamn,” “Strange Fruit,” and “Young, Gifted, and Black” helped define a generation. Simone was front and center for much of the civil rights movement which galvanized her performances into aggressively political statements. The performance footage throughout is simply riveting, from outdoor concerts where she practically incites the audience to riot, to jazz festival appearances with songs being stopped shortly after they start so Simone can direct audience members to sit down and pay attention to her. The film relies on these live performances to frame her career, only naming a couple of her albums specifically, and it really makes you hope that there’s a DVD release coming with complete versions tacked on as bonus features.

Though it was made with the involvement of Simone’s estate (which for music docs usually means that the end result will be at preferential towards the subject), footage of interviews with Simone’s former husband and manager Andrew Stroud is used frequently which, given that he was emotionally, physically, and even sexually abusive to her is jarring. We see excerpts from Simone’s diary and hear audio of her describing terrible things he did to her, and then it cuts to him casually talking about his life with her as if he’s not the villain of this story. Of her mother and father’s tumultuous relationship, Simone’s daughter comments, “I think they were both nuts. She stayed with him. She had this love affair with fire,” which comes off as borderline victim-blaming and only acts to muddy things further. It’s understandable that the filmmakers didn’t want this aspect to overwhelm the film’s larger message by confronting it head on, but to address the elephant in the room only obliquely creates its own set of tonal problems and verges on irresponsibility.

While What Happened, Miss Simone? ends with a slightly upward note, the overall notion the film conveys is that even though she made a lasting impression on the history of music, Nina Simone was still less than fulfilled. She played Carnegie Hall but confided to her parents that she wished it was as a classical pianist she aspired to be instead of the jazz musician she was expected to be. "I'm sorry I didn't become the world's first black classical pianist. I think would have been happier. I'm not very happy now," she tells an interviewer late in the film. In the end, even with the issues mentioned above, it’s hard to see Liz Garbus’s documentary as anything less than essential viewing, which presents a nuanced and heartbreaking portrait of an artist who fought against great odds for all the remarkable success she achieved in her lifetime, yet somehow still felt that she missed the mark.

Profile Picture of Chris Lay
Chris Lay

Chris Lay is a freelance writer, archivist, and record store clerk living in Madison, WI. The very first CD he bought for himself was the Dumb & Dumber soundtrack when he was twelve and things only got better from there.

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