Sundance 2015: ‘What Happened, Miss Simone?’ a fittingly emotional tribute to an icon


What Happened, Miss Simone?
Directed by Liz Garbus
USA, 2015

Liz Garbus’ What Happened, Miss Simone? is an emotional tribute to Nina Simone, the late singer and civil rights activist. The heart of the film probes into the manifold reasons that Simone drifted from visible civil rights activism to almost completely dropping out of public life altogether. Wisely, Garbus largely allows the artist to speak for herself through live musical performances, interviews, and private writings. Peppered in between is commentary from Simone’s ex-husband, brother, friends, and daughter. It’s an intricately woven tale that builds upon Simone’s humble beginnings to the cultural power she cultivated with an unparalleled creative voice.

The passion behind her music was influenced by domestic violence, mental illness, and overexposure to the trappings of fame. Being black and a woman, she felt subjugated by the patriarchy and practically stateless because of how poorly America treated African-American citizens. These factors played into her shifting from being a classically trained pianist to a soul singer. Even though she couldn’t physically be on the front lines of the the Civil Rights movement, she was able to galvanize people to action and awareness through song. Her energy flowed into material that she crafted to cry out for justice and solemnly speak to the buried pain of her personal life.

Garbus handles Simone with tact and respect without being afraid to expose the flaws that threatened to derail her career. Her mesmerizing and commanding stage presence belied the fact that she could be violent. Manic depression often reared its head and threw her life into even more chaos than she already suffered. Including some unsettling facts about how she treated her daughter and self-destructive feelings doesn’t hinder the reconstruction of her greatness but instead, rightly, fleshes out weaknesses that made her a real human being. Simone did not come by her brilliance easily, nor did she make it easy on others as she battled against her demons. This makes the documentary far more fascinating than say, Salinger, which seemed to admire its subject’s mistreatment of young women and glossed over the ugly egotism.

There are times that What Happened, Miss Simone? verges on being a concert film, but because Simone’s true brilliance shone through most when she held an audience captive with loaded pauses, the movie playing out songs in their entirety feels like an apt tribute to the immediacy she brought to every performance. This film is certainly an immersive experience of Simone’s body of work and personal struggles. At times this project nearly overwhelms the senses because Simone is so intensely performing in the context of the historical moment. Her poignant and fiery tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. after his assassination is devastating and frames the agony of the loss to the black community with an articulate grace.

What Happened, Miss Simone? is a documentary that needed to be made to fill in considerable gaps of knowledge about a figure of integral importance to the 20th century. She may not have changed policies, but her profound commentary on a life as a black woman in the midst of cultural upheaval and intimate battles brought a sense of decency and intelligence into an essential conversation about human rights.

— Lane Scarberry

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