Director: Liz Garbus
Cast: Nina Simone
Watch What Happened, Miss Simone? online in the UK: Netflix
It’s very telling that while the trailer for Liz Garbus’ new documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? uses her most iconic song – Feelin’ Good – it doesn’t appear once in the movie. It’s a pretty apt summation of the film as a whole, pulling us in with the promise of hearing Nina’s greatest hits before unearthing fathoms of hidden depth.
At first glance, this feels like a pretty run-of-the-mill ‘behind the music’ documentary. Garbus presents tasteful talking-head interviews with Nina’s family and closest confidantes, and while what they say is interesting, it’s hardly revelatory. Her daughter’s admission that “my mother was Nina Simone 24/7” could have come from any of a dozen documentaries about similar stars.
But it works because of the subject. Nina’s voice is such a joy to listen to that most viewers would be content to just watch 90 minutes of archival footage of her singing her heart out in such surreal venues as the Playboy Mansion. And there is evidence that she really was ‘on’ all the time – a playful moment of Nina stopping halfway through a song to tell an audience member to sit down quickly turns dark, as it becomes apparent that she wasn’t joking.
Thankfully, Garbus gives us so much more than just a few great songs. Nina is not only our subject but also our narrator, thanks to access to audio recordings made by her biographer and even pages of her meticulous diaries, which document, in detail, her struggles with domestic abuse at the hands of her ex-husband and mood swings which would only be diagnosed as manic depression late in her life. It’s hard not to feel uncomfortably voyeuristic when Nina is talking about her sex life or the last time she was beaten, but Garbus remains respectfully distant, never letting Nina be defined as a victim.
What’s most fascinating – and what takes up the bulk of the film’s second act – is Nina’s association with the Civil Rights Movement. It’s undeniably amusing at first to hear anecdotes of the sultry chanteuse walking up to no less a figure than Martin Luther King and declaring “I’m not non-violent”. But this isn’t a simple case of jumping on a political bandwagon: this is an artist who reflected not only the time in which she lived, but our own time as well. It’s hard to listen to her infamous rallying cry “Mississippi Goddam” without thinking of the repeating tragedies occurring in places such as Ferguson and Charleston even now.
Netflix’s first original documentary sets the bar damn high. It’s a masterfully-assembled portrait that reveals just how little we know about one of the most iconic performers of all time.
What Happened, Miss Simone? is available on Netflix UK, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription.