Before she became an iconic songstress, Nina Simone, née Eunice Wayon in North Carolina, wanted to be the first black classical pianist in America. But Simone was a chameleon, and a musical peripatetic, who took a different path and walked from one genre to another when she got bored. Her legacy still looms over music, and civil rights, in which she actively participated throughout her life before emigrating to France in her later years.
Liz Garbus’ “What Happened, Miss Simone?” (now streaming on Netflix) shows us the darkness gleaming off the edges of soul’s high priestess. She was always emotional, and always performing whether onstage or off, but her demons carried more serious weight. As revealed in this tough-love portrait, Simone struggled to wrest her artistic temperament, was terrorized by alcoholism and depression and by her ’60s husband-manager Andy Stroud, and ultimately physically abused her daughter Lisa. “She had a love affair with fire,” Lisa says of her mother during a confessional interview.
The details surprised even director Garbus, who worked closely with Simone’s estate to make a moving yet troubling documentary that melds heretofore unheard audio tapes, interviews and concert footage of the jazz chanteuse who died in 2003 at age 70. The film is one in a wave of fascinating documentaries on tormented musicians this year, along with “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” and “Amy,” which opens next week.