Unlike Liz Garbus’s film about Marilyn Monroe, she does not use subs to stand-in for the legendary artist Nina Simone. She weaves archival footage of Nina Simone, with Simone’s own narrative, in performances and interviews, with angled testimonies by Simone’s daughter Lisa Simone Kelly, and Simone’s ex-husband/producer. Simone herself is a fiction to behold, self-created from Eunice Kathleen Waymon, become “High Priestess of Soul.” Garbus takes us forward and back to learn more, creating the realization that we can only have Simone in the present via her immortal songs and recorded performances.
Like Love, Marilyn, What Happened Miss Simone? focuses a lot on Simone’s worklife, via the interviews, performance footage, and regards the creation of her songwriting. Simone suffers a lot in her life, her success hard won, lost and regained, but to what end? It is a stunning, startling, haunting, sorrowful, illuminating, and triumphant portrait of the artist. Simone created herself real and then can’t uncreate herself. She moved among great friends, among them Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin, and Martin Luther King, most of whom were gone in her later life. We can’t see everything about her time in Liberia, which seems to regenerate her after she leaves her abusive husband. We can’t see everything about her King Lear-like loss of bearings that seems 360 degrees from her essential successes, destitute in Paris, the very city that should have upheld her, and then it did. She started working again, with the help of persons and pills, that may have in some ways taken the live wire out of her, and left her neutral, to work, though without her usual fire and soulful brimstone. The archival footage is, even as a seasoned Simone fan, footage that no one would have ever seen before. It is pieced together such that we get the impact of each part of Simone’s life, the consequences of her success and the way life never let up for her. She was as strong and true to herself as she could be. Lisa Simone Kelly does not pull punches, since Simone neglected and may have abused her, but she clearly reveres her mother’s talent, and refers to her as a genius. She gives her due honor with love’s intention true. What Happened Miss Simone? is also about the people that stepped in to help her and those who hurt her. Sometimes Simone herself stepped out and who could blame her? It is a riveting documentary of a persona that one feels is still here, and one values her music all the more, knowing the trajectory of what happened, and how it imprinted her songs, how they were written, and who she was writing them for. Simone wrote her songs for, as she said, “my people.” She wrote “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black” for Lorraine Hansberry. She wrote the four girls killed in a Mississippi Church in “Mississippi Goddamn!” If only Simone were here to write about this year’s shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, and a song about “Black Lives Matter”. She wrote about all the injustices she lived through or witnessed firsthand; she wrote directly to her politics and she lost commercial currency on that choice. She handed what she felt back to us, and like it or not, she provided us with the medicine, the freedom of her songs. What happened in her life was what happened to her songs. Simone lives in the throbbing heart of music history. Given time on a desert island, I’d still only take Nina Simone’s music.