“What Happened, Miss Simone?” answers its own question. This impressive and deeply felt documentary starts with that query, asked by Maya Angelou in a 1970 magazine article, and then intimately examines the tumultuous, at times tragic life of the exquisite vocal stylist who battled her troubled personal history as well as the world’s injustices.
Expertly directed by the veteran Liz Garbus (“The Farm: Angola USA,” “Bobby Fischer Against the World”) and made with the approval of the late Nina Simone’s estate and the on-camera cooperation of her only child, Lisa Simone Kelly, “What Happened, Miss Simone?” begins with a festival appearance by the singer that captures her complexities in a single clip.
Appearing on stage at the Montreux festival in 1976 before a huge adoring crowd, Simone stands next to her piano as a remarkable range of unhappy emotions appear to cross her face. Then, in a moment, all traces of anger, distance and fear disappear; she breaks into a dazzling smile, sits at the piano and begins an intoxicating performance.
“My mother was one of the greatest entertainers of all time, but she paid a price,” says Kelly. “My mother was Nina Simone 24-7, and that’s where it became a problem. When the show ended she was alone, fighting her own demons, full of anger and rage. She couldn’t live with herself, and everything fell apart.”
“Miss Simone?” has new interviews with key people in her life, like longtime guitarist and musical director Al Schackman and two daughters of Malcolm X (the families lived next to each other in Mount Vernon, N.Y.), but it intentionally avoids tribute-type sound bites from other singers.
What we hear instead are the voices of the people who lived the story, such as controversial husband and manager Andrew Stroud (in footage from an unfinished 2006 documentary) and Simone herself talking about what she triumphed over, what she endured.
Director Garbus (who says “Miss Simone?” is “the film I’ve been practicing my whole life to make”) and her team tracked down more than 100 hours of Simone recordings, including the more than 25 hours of interviews she gave the co-writer of her autobiography.
Just as immediate, if not more so, are enlargements of excerpts from the singer’s handwritten journals, which tell in often painful detail the difficulties associated with her marriage and private life.
What we get most of all is Simone performing parts of more than two dozen songs, ranging from “Strange Fruit” to “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” in that unmistakable voice. As music and cultural critic Stanley Crouch says, “You only have to hear her once. No one sounds like her except her.”
Which makes it all the more remarkable that the singer, born Eunice Waymon in Tryon, N.C., had a totally different musical career on her mind. Simone began playing the piano at age 3, had years of classical lessons, studied at Juilliard and gave up the dream at age 21 only when she was turned down by the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
In need of a way to make money, she started playing piano and singing at clubs in nearby Atlantic City. To hide the nature of her work from her Methodist minister mother, she changed her name, taking Nina from the Spanish word for “girl” and Simone from an actress she admired, Simone Signoret.
With appearances at the Newport Jazz Festival and a recording contract, Simone’s career took off. One of the most disconcerting clips in “Miss Simone?” has her singing a still heartrending version of her first hit, “I Loves You, Porgy” from “Porgy and Bess,” in the surreal surroundings of Hugh Hefner’s “Playboy’s Penthouse” TV series.
Simone’s marriage to Stroud proved problematic, to say the least. A former New York City police sergeant who helped her become a star, Stroud was an astute businessman who advanced her career, but he had a violent streak that led to beatings, and Simone came to feel he was working her too hard.
“He protected me against everyone but himself,” she says in an interview. “He wrapped himself around me like a snake.” And Stroud was definitely not on board when the birth of the civil rights movement led Simone to radically change her priorities.
Determined to add meaning to her stardom, Simone became a passionate advocate of equality. Her circle of friends grew to include James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry and Stokely Carmichael, and she wrote some of the movement’s most passionate anthems, including “Young, Gifted and Black.” “I was needed,” she says simply. “Singing to help my people became the mainstay of my life.”
Simone’s personal behavior was frequently erratic (she was diagnosed as bipolar in the late 1980s), and she lived in different countries after leaving the U.S. in the early 1970s, but her quest for freedom remained a constant.
“It’s a feeling, you know it when it happens,” she says in one interview. “Freedom is no fear. I wish I could have that.”
‘What Happened Miss Simone?’
No MPAA rating
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes
Playing: Laemmle’s Music Hall 3, Beverly Hills