Kanye West sampled her, Chanel made her into a jingle and President Obama called her song “Sinnerman” one of his 10 favorites. But for a woman whose music is so widely admired, Nina Simone has long been little understood. Even many fans of the jazz artist and civil rights radical don’t know what fueled the passion and anger that became her trademark, before ultimately leading her to abandon public life in her prime.
Simone’s only child, Lisa Simone Kelly, hopes some of that mystery will lift with the release of the documentary “What Happened, Miss Simone?” which opens theatrically June 26 in Los Angeles and will be available on Netflix as well.
“She has a reputation for being difficult, loud and violent, but why?” Simone Kelly said of her mother by phone from her home in France. “We all have a story. My mother suffered. We can go all the way back to when she was a child and people told her her nose was too big, her skin was too dark, her lips were too wide. It’s very important the world acknowledges my mother was a classical musician whose dreams were not realized because of racism.”
Directed by Liz Garbus and executive produced by Simone Kelly, “What Happened, Miss Simone?” is reaching audiences months before a highly contested biopic, “Nina,” starring Zoe Saldana in the title role, hits theaters. That film, which came under fire for the casting of the fair-skinned Saldana as Simone and was the subject of a lawsuit by its director, Cynthia Mort, is expected to be released in the fall, according to a spokeswoman for its British production company, Ealing Studios.
Simone is penetrating the mainstream via other media too: On July 10, Revive Music//RCA Records will release “Nina Revisited: A Tribute to Nina Simone,” an album of artists including Lauryn Hill and Mary J. Blige covering her songs.
It was precisely because Simone Kelly was so disturbed by the script for “Nina,” which focuses on a relationship with a composite character based on Simone’s former nurse and manager Clifton Henderson (played by David Oyelowo), that she decided to participate in the documentary.
“Let’s put it this way, I’m very happy that this movie made it across the finish line first,” said Simone Kelly, an actress and singer who has performed on Broadway in the title role of the Disney musical “Aida” and released three solo albums. Simone Kelly’s father, Andrew Stroud, was a New York police detective who later became Simone’s manager. “If a lie comes out in the movies, that goes down in history as that person’s journey.”
No embellishment needed
It’s hard to imagine that a storyteller would need to embellish Simone, who projected a shocking power as a performer even as she shouldered the burdens of genius, racism, sexism and, according to her daughter, mental illness.
In 1964, a time when white audiences expected black female pop singers like the Supremes and the Ronettes to perform love songs and look demure, Simone was delivering the protest anthem “Mississippi Goddam” at Carnegie Hall, telling the crowd, “You’re all gonna die and die like flies.”
“Fusing blues and jazz into standards, talking to her audience, calling them out on whatever she felt they needed to be called out on ... For a black woman to do that at time, that was not done,” Garbus said. “They were expected to play and make things nice and not rock the boat.”
Garbus, who was nominated for an Oscar for her 1998 prison film, “The Farm: Angola USA,” and has also made movies on Bobby Fischer and Marilyn Monroe, was one of a long list of potential directors that production company Radical Media gave to Simone Kelly in 2013. It was in particular Garbus’ treatment of Monroe in the 2012 film “Love, Marilyn” that caught Simone Kelly’s eye for how it gave dimension to another widely misunderstood woman.
“Liz is female, she’s fearless, she’s got compassion,” Simone Kelly said. “I thought she would tell this story the way Mom would want the story told.”
Through extensive use of archival performance footage and interviews with key figures like Stroud and Simone’s longtime guitarist Al Schackman, “What Happened, Miss Simone?” covers the singer’s tragic life arc. There is her childhood as a Bach-loving piano prodigy in North Carolina, her days singing standards in Greenwich Village bars in the 1950s, her awakening to the civil rights movement in the 1960s, her volatile marriage and exile to Liberia and later Europe, and her diagnosis of bipolar disorder.
In excerpts from Simone’s diaries, the film shows the enormous toll of life on the road — she wrote often of her fatigue and of missing her daughter, whom Malcolm X’s widow, Betty Shabazz, was raising in Mount Vernon, N.Y.
Garbus and her team unearthed performance footage a New York University student had shot in 16 mm of Simone at the Village Gate nightclub in New York and tracked down audiotapes of interviews she gave to the man who helped her write her memoirs, Stephen Cleary, who was living in Australia.
“When you listened to her you felt like she had gone through everything you might imagine going through,” Garbus said. “That’s a healing thing, that you can feel like she’s been there and knows your struggle. But the [civil rights] movement could make someone crazy.”
Netflix received an Oscar nomination for a previous documentary acquisition, “The Square,” a 2013 film about unrest in Egypt. “What Happened, Miss Simone?” is the first documentary Netflix has financed itself (together with RadicalMedia). “We’re their ‘House of Cards’ for documentaries,” Garbus said. “Making your first documentary about a radical like Nina is pretty adventurous.”
The troubles of ‘Nina’
The documentary galloped along, but the biopic, “Nina,” hit several rough patches. A crucial part of Simone’s identity was not just that she was a black woman but that she was a dark-skinned black woman who was punished for that fact.
So when director Cynthia Mort cast Saldana, multiracial and of Dominican and Puerto Rican parentage, in the title role, many took umbrage. In Ebony, Marc Lamont Hill wrote, “There is no greater evidence of how tragic things are for dark-skinned women in Hollywood than the fact that they can’t even get hired to play dark-skinned women.”
Mort said by phone that she cast Saldana because “she’s committed and she’s amazing.” “I understood that reaction [to the casting], but ... Nina was much more than that and lived beyond those definitions,” Mort said.
On the eve of the film’s 2014 Cannes Film Festival screening for potential exhibitors, however, Mort, who wrote the screenplay for the 2007 Jodie Foster thriller “The Brave One,” filed a lawsuit against her U.K. production company, Ealing Studios, alleging that it breached her director’s agreement and took over creative control of the project. She has since dropped the case.
“We had very, very, very different visions of the film,” Mort said. “But it was time for me to move on. I’m very excited for the documentary because Nina Simone was an important figure to African Americans, to women and to artists.”
A spokeswoman for Ealing says the company is negotiating with a U.S. distributor.
Even before either film’s release, audiences are rediscovering Simone. When John Legend accepted the Oscar for original song for the film “Selma” in February, he quoted Simone, who had sung “Mississippi Goddam” for the 40,000 marchers from Montgomery to Selma, Ala., whose story is told in the film.
Last summer, as Garbus was editing, protest and civil disturbance were unfolding in Ferguson, Mo. “The footage on the TV looked exactly like our civil rights footage,” Garbus said.
On the June morning of her film’s premiere at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, Garbus said she walked into a Starbucks and heard Simone’s voice carrying over the hiss of the espresso machine.
“Why is this happening now?” Garbus asked. “Maybe we need her. Maybe Nina’s an antidote to what’s happened in the music industry. We talk about its commercialization and homogenization. She’s an icon people can call on for a model of honest involvement in the movement as an entertainer.”
‘What Happened, Miss Simone?’
When: Anytime starting Friday
Rating: Not rated