The opening moments of Liz Garbus’ new documentary, “What Happened, Miss Simone?,” cast a spell over the packed audience during the film’s New York City premiere at the Apollo Theater, presented by Netflix and The Film Society of Lincoln Center, on Monday evening. Nina Simone, standing before the crowd at the 1976 Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, basks in the glow of the stage light, demanding applause with an unreadable demeanor. Her eyes are at once abrasive and transfixing, intimidating and engaging. The moment may not register as powerfully when the film can be streamed later this month on computers and televisions worldwide via Netflix, but on this night and at this historic venue it was as if Simone had returned to the Apollo stage once more with that haunting, one-of-a-kind stage presence.
As the Oscar-nominated Garbus (“The Farm: Angola, USA”) highlighted at the start of the night’s event, Simone had famously played the Apollo in February 1961. “Friends said I might have trouble with the crowd there because the Apollo is well known for giving artists a rough time. I was well known for doing the same thing to audiences,” the High Priestess of Soul remembered of the experience according to Garbus. “So the two of us getting together was looked at as kind of a championship boxing match, with the Apollo as the champ and me as the contender. In the end we fought to a draw.”
The iconic recording artist’s first battle at the Apollo may have concluded neutrally, but her return to the Harlem landmark for the evening’s premiere most certainly ended with her as the undisputed victor. “Apollo was the god of music, truth, prophesy, healing, the sun and the light and poetry, and Nina is the queen of those things too, so it’s really wonderful to be here,” Garbus said in light of Simone’s return to the Apollo Theater five decades later.
Building the narrative of Simone’s life straight from the singer’s own songs, diary entries and letters, “What Happened, Miss Simone?” paints a complete portrait of the legendary singer and civil rights activist, starting with her childhood training as a classical pianist and ending with her 2003 death. “When we started making the film the guiding principle was Nina,” Garbus explained, taking the crowd behind her creative process before thanking a number of editors and producers of the film. “How much of Nina could we bring to an audience? Could we search the earth for every scrap of audio and every performance and every interview that she did? The film is kind of a result of that worldwide search. The idea was to let Nina tell her story as much of possible and for us to get out of the way in whatever way possible for the music and life of Nina Simone.”
Considering how much the documentary shines a light on Simone’s commitment to music, family and the civil rights movement, she would have most likely been humbled by the diverse turnout. The event welcomed a number of Simone’s family members and close friends, including her two grandchildren, her son-in-law and Malcolm X’s daughter, Ambassador Shabazz. Three of Simone’s most trusted musicians were also in attendance, most notably guitarist and musical director Al Schackman, a prominent talking head in the documentary who received a huge applause when acknowledged after the screening. Other notable attendees included recent Oscar-winner Laura Poitras (“Citzenfour”) and musician Usher Raymond, whose in the middle of putting together a Simone tribute album.
But if the night belonged to anyone, it was Simone and her crusade for civil justice through music, something that was passionately embodied when the evening closed with a surprise performance and rare appearance from Lauryn Hill. The former Fugees member and Grammy-winning solo artist, backed by an energetic house band, brought the crowd to its feet with a tribute set of covers and originals. Hill gave Simone’s cover of Jacques Brel’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas” a rocker’s edge, and she quite literally blew the speakers out during a rousing version of “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” a folk song Simone covered in 1965 in order to put a spotlight on black identity during the Civil Rights Movement.
Themes of social justice and music continued when R&B and soul singer Jazmine Sullivan took the stage for the original “Baltimore,” a powerful ballad inspired by the recent race riots in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death. By the time Hill returned to lead the house band in a show-stopping version of the instrumental “African Mailman,” it was clear that Simone’s battle for equality continues to this day and that her spirit lives on in talented artists like these. Hill summed up the documentary’s subject best when leaving the stage. “Thank you, Nina Simone,” she said, “for existing and being bold enough to speak.”
“What Happened, Miss Simone?” will be available to stream on Netflix starting June 26 and opens in select theaters June 24.