Film Reviews

REVIEW: What Happened, Miss Simone?

Hot Docs 2015

USA, 104 min.
Directed by Liz Garbus
Canadian Premiere

2015 is a great year for women in the arts at Hot Docs. This year’s festival boasts a strong crop of films about the arts and artists, as well as a significant field of work by female filmmakers. Liz Garbus’s spellbinding Nina Simone biography What Happened, Miss Simone? sits as one of the top titles in both fields at the festival. Garbus (Love, Marilyn) returns to the world of celebrity with this behind-the-scenes doc that explores the life and career of the incomparable Nina Simon, jazz singer, outspoken Civil Rights activist, and legendary High Priestess of Soul. Garbus hits all the right notes with What Happened, Miss Simone?

The film lets the late singer narrate her own story thanks to a masterful assemblage of archival interviews (both audio and video), diary entries, and written notes. The collage reveals a woman who is adored, yet alone. Interviews with key figures in Simone’s life, such as her daughter Lisa Simone Kelly, fill in the cracks of this documentary mosaic to create a fuller and more cohesive portrait of a complicated artist.

Garbus builds on the titular question ‘What happened, Miss Simone?’ which was first posed by Maya Angelou and appears as the film’s opening title card, by charting the performer’s quick ride to fame and subsequent fall from the top. The film shows the singer/pianist’s humble origins as Eunice Waymon, a young woman devoted to music, who graduates to stardom as Nina Simone. As a student, Simone feels the sting of racism by missing the cut at her preferred school despite her talent. Simone’s account tells of how she devoted herself to the piano and blossomed into a gifted prodigy with aspirations of being the first black female concert pianist to play Carnegie Hall. Garbus smartly interlaces Simone’s growth and journey with the American Civil Rights movement, and she situates each stage in Simone’s career within the larger cultural attitude of the era.

What Happened, Miss Simone? offers a sonorous soundtrack of Simone’s greatest hits to mirror the dynamics of her career. The smoky jazz of “I Loves You, Porgy” introduces Simone to the world as she graduates from modest girl to superstar, while her anger and grave vocal timbre cast a chill when “I Put a Spell on You” overlays the chapter chronicling her violent marriage to Andrew Stroud, her eventual manager. Garbus weaves Simone’s increasingly troubled thoughts with her powerful vocals and gives an expertly nuanced portrait of a great and conflicted artist. The scenes of Simone performing in concert are ferocious—her voice is a force of nature—but the context of her recordings and interviews show another woman behind the tunes. Bipolar, she was as fierce in spirit as in song—but it sometimes led to difficulties with audiences and producers.

Garbus elaborates upon Simone’s fiery musicality during the film’s second act that chronicles Simone’s role in the Civil Rights movement. The soundtrack moves from sedate jazz to provocative anthems that resonate with the unrest of the moment. Simone sings “Mississippi Goddam” with the anger of a rallying cry as she brings the racial elements of her work to the forefront. Garbus shows Simone channelling her fury and passion into furthering civil rghts at the expense of her mainstream success as she becomes increasingly passionate in the crusade for equality. This chapter shows a Simone empowered by singing loud and clear that she’s proud to be black, but the footage also asks if her radical attitude, which even advocates violence, was more of a drawback than a virtue. Garbus remains firmly objective, but What Happened, Nina Simone? suggests that any slip in Simone’s cultural currency during the Civil Rights movement is a collective loss, rather than a personal one.

Garbus’s objectivity lets her dig within Simone’s fascinating psyche as her daughter Lisa recounts the days of her mother’s increasing volatility, which eventually led to the realisation that Simone was an undiagnosed bi-polar and manic depressive. Fame and fortune arguably compounded Simone’s emotional whirlwind, but as with many troubled artists, she effectively channelled her great range of feelings and emotions into powerful songs that still resonate with audiences today. What Happened, Miss Simone? plays Simone’s personal tale against her work and vice versa. Each fragment of the flawlessly stitched film contributes to a fascinating character. It’s one of Garbus’s best films.

Hot Docs 2015 Screenings
Sat, May 2 1:00 PM
Bloor Hot Docs Cinema

Sun, May 3 9:30 PM
The Regent

Click here for more of POV’s coverage of the 2015 Hot Docs Festival!

Pat Mullen is POV’s Associate Online Editor, etc. He covers film at Cinemablographer.com, and has contributed to The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, BeatRoute, Modern Times Review, and Documentary magazine and is a member of the Toronto Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society. You can reach him at @cinemablogrpher

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