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‘What Happened, Miss Simone?’: Sundance Kicks Off with a Middle-of-the-Road Documentary

'What Happened, Miss Simone?': Sundance Kicks Off with a Middle-of-the-Road Documentary

Sundance kicks off with “What Happened, Miss Simone,” a Nina Simone documentary that explores how the great singer’s troubled life was shaped by tragedy, systemic racism, and remarkable talent. Critics are split between “wow, Nina Simone!” to “eh, pretty bland presentation,” but it sounds like it’s a fairly run-of-the-mill documentary about a remarkable performer. But even the least enthusiastic reviews write that it might be worth checking out when it debuts on Netflix just for the terrific archival interviews and performance footage of Simone.

More thoughts from the web:

Daniel Fienberg, HitFix

Garbus’ central structural gambit is telling as much of the story as possible in Simone’s own words, culled from interviews, some never-before-heard. It’s a great idea and, at times, there’s a welcome candidness from the approach, but when it’s just Simone narrating a stream of events from her life, it isn’t appreciably better than using a third-party narrator. And while Simone gave many interviews during and about the first chapters of her life, basically from Liberia on has to be entrusted to friends and loved ones and, as a result, feels much less illuminating. Read more.

Scott Foundas, Variety

“Sometimes I sound like gravel and sometimes I sound like coffee and cream,” Nina Simone remarks of her signature husky tenor at one point in Liz Garbus’ documentary “What Happened, Miss Simone?” And it is that voice, spoken and sung, which guides us through Garbus’ meticulously researched, tough-love portrait of the brilliant but troubled folk/jazz/soul diva, drawing on a vast archive of audio interviews, diary pages and performance footage that allows for Simone (who died of cancer in 2003) to answer the title question in her own unmistakable words. Read more.

Tim Grierson, Paste Magazine

The exceptional and the conventional do battle in “What Happened, Miss Simone?,” a thoughtful, admiring look at the gigantically talented singer and artist Nina Simone. Directed by veteran documentarian Liz Garbus (Oscar-nominated for co-directing “The Farm: Angola, USA”), the film seeks to showcase Simone in all her complexity—civil rights icon, trailblazing jazz musician, a victim of mental illness—and there’s no questioning the love that flows through every frame. And yet, “Miss Simone?” is disappointingly safe in its approach. Oddly, the reverence Garbus shows Simone does her subject a disservice: The straightforward structure diminishes the singer’s rebellious genius. Read more.

Jordan Hoffman, The Guardian

Clearly there is entertainment value in this documentary, but it’s very much of a “behind the music” calibre. A clip, commentary from an associate or a critic like Stanley Crouch, another clip, rinse, repeat. A post-festival distribution deal is already in place with Netflix and, frankly, that’s the perfect format for Garbus’s by-the-numbers storytelling. “What Happened, Miss Simone?” is another example of Wikipedia-entry-as-cinema, but with a life this remarkable, it’s still worth a look. Read more.
Mike Hogan, Vanity Fair

Garbus’s documentary is a celebration of Simone’s legacy, but it also takes a reasonably unflinching approach to her faults. (Though her various exploits with firearms go unmentioned, she can be heard in voice over stating that she would have liked to take up arms against the white enemy, if only Stroud hadn’t stood in her way.) But the real joy here is the music, and the archival footage of Simone doing what she did best: singing, playing piano, performing. Read more.

Mike Ryan, Uproxx

“What Happened, Miss Simone?” explores a truly remarkable life in what’s a pretty OK documentary. Simone’s life is so extraordinary, I just wanted to know more about it. But the film has a bad habit of showing way too much of her performances when it reverts to concert footage. In other words: the film will have a great pace going, then it comes to a halt as we watch five minutes of one song. Yes, Nina Simone is a great performer and, yes, that footage should be in the film – but it should have been truncated. Every time another full song is shown, it just kills the momentum. Read more.

Video of Simone’s extraordinary performance at Montreux in 1976: Nina Simone – Live in Montreux 1976 from Nina Simone on Vimeo.

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