Nina Simone walks out, slowly, almost warily, into a dimly lit theater as a hush falls over the audience. She keeps her head down as she approaches the stately black piano that awaits center stage. About to take her seat, she pauses in a slightly hunch, raising her eyes to the crowd. Is that awe in her undecipherable gaze? Disgust? Awe? Fear?
As Liz Garbus’s “What Happened, Miss Simone?” unfurls a complex portrait of the person behind the performer, it’s easy to see why it might be all of the above.
Tracing the life of one of the most dynamic artists and civil rights activists in American history, the Netflix-produced documentary opens a window into the spirit, passion, and individuality that defined Simone — as well as the disillusion and loneliness that consumed her underneath over a lifetime of soaring highs and crushing lows.
Born Eunice Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina in the heart of the Jim Crow era, she played her first keys at the age of four at her local church. The film follows her progression from trained classical pianist to one of the most celebrated singers of all time, a path carved unintentionally after an application to the renowned Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia was rejected (a decision based, suspiciously, on account of her race). Her introduction to singing was accidental, during a stint as a bar pianist in Atlantic City where she renamed herself Nina Simone, cementing her transition from sonatas to soul; meanwhile, the recording industry swooped in on the emerging voice in its midst. Later, she used her talent as a revolutionary tool in the burgeoning civil rights movement.
Oscar-nominated documentarian Garbus deftly blends voiceover narration — much of it extracted from Simone’s recorded interviews — and aptly selected tunes from Simone’s discography with an impressive collection of letters, photographs, and home videos. Together, they chronicle the ascent of her musical career and forays into activism, as well as the demons of insecurity that grew alongside.
But while the archival footage lends the expository texture vital to biopic documentaries of this nature, there’s a discernible difference between learning about Simone through recollections from her friends and family (most often her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly), and witnessing a conversation with Simone herself. Whether she’s speaking about her music’s ability to empower black America or divulging her battles with depression, it’s her magnetic presence on screen that breathes more life into the film than when anyone else occupies the frame.
Simone comes across as both formidable and vulnerable, trapped by forces that inhibit her desire for self-expression: her abusive husband, her controlling managers, and her own spiral into bipolarism. Watching her discuss her life and art is simultaneously inspiring and saddening as Garbus’ meticulously assembled tapestry of records reveals an increasingly dissatisfied, volatile enigma, searching for respite as her commercial career takes hits and her marriage crumbles.
Simone comes across as an erratic figure onstage and off — from her tendency to switch keys mid-tune to her mercurial mood swings at home. Yet the film never takes a coherent stance on its subject. At one point, her daughter recalls a particularly traumatizing beating by her mother; Garbus follows the scene with Simone performing an uplifting rendition of “Ain’t Got No, I Got Life,” as if to hurriedly reassure us that her true legacy lies in her songs, not her struggles.
Still, there’s plenty of room given to Simone’s talent. Away from the confessions that induce shock and the divulgences that elicit sympathy, Garbus leaves ample space for lengthy sequences of Simone’s performances.
It’s here, in celebration of her artistry, where the true power of the documentary lies. From the hauntingly romantic “I Loves You Porgy” to the unbridled anger of “Mississippi Goddam” and the heart-wrenching wistfulness of “Stars,” Simone’s electrifying performances — delivered in her distinctive, gravelly-yet-bold timbre — are a reminder of the truth and unabashed freedom in her music. We may now have jarring insights into the mother, the activist and the tortured soul at the root of Simone’s career, but it’s the legendary songstress who ultimately shines through.
“What Happened, Miss Simone” premiered on opening night at the Sundance Film Festival. Netflix will carry the film later this year.