There’s a double meaning inherent in the title of the documentary “What Happened, Miss Simone?” which opened the 2015 Sundance Film Festival on Thursday night.
At face value, the question seems innocuous: “What things occurred?” But the undercurrent of the question, which was posed by Maya Angelou in a poem, is “What went so wrong?”
Plenty, judging by Liz Garbus’ film about the legendary singer Nina Simone. There’s a tension in the film between the two forms of the question — when the film is simply recounting the events of Simone’s life, getting insight from talking-heads interviews and archival photos, it’s a pretty boilerplate documentary. But when Simone is given the chance to speak for herself, the film becomes messier and darker, and feels closer to its subject.
The strength of Garbus’ film is in Simone’s voice, both in her inimitable singing voice, which hinted at depths and darknesses that other singers dared not go, and her speaking voice. While there are some talking-heads interviews used, most potently with Simone’s daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, most of Simone’s story is told in her voice, taken from rarely-heard audio interviews.
Simone, who died in 2003, is candid about a life full of a lot of loneliness, and a lot of anger. A child prodigy at the piano, Simone grew up isolated from other kids, at the keyboards while they danced. As a young club singer, she would spend all night up on stage performing for strangers.
Even as one of the iconic voices of 1960s jazz and blues, she was isolated – on some level, the world didn’t know what to do with her. She was so present on stage, alive to the moment and the mood (and woe to the audience member who talked or tried to take a bathroom break during a song). She was incapable of being inauthentic. There’s a funny but telling clip from her performance of “I Love You Porgy” on Hugh Hefner’s “Playboy Penthouse” – and amid the silliness of Hef’s TV pad, she completely pours herself into the song. But she’s the only black face in the room, alone.
The civil rights movement ignited her anger (she sang “Mississippi Goddam” when no one else could), and when Martin Luther King was killed and cops beating protesters in the street, she turned radical, preaching for African-Americans to create a separate state, by force if necessary.
Sick of America and her abusive manager husband, she fled to Liberia and put her career and her life in free fall. She only stopped her descent when friends staged an intervention, had her diagnosed as bipolar, and got her the medications she needed to quiet the demons in her head.
When Simone gets the chance to speak, or sing, her voice enraged or sorrowful or even playful, “What Happened?” captures both what made her great and what made her tragic. While the soundtrack is full of Simone songs, the one glaring omission is “Feelin’ Good,” and with good reason. Because much of the time, she wasn’t.
The documentary was produced by Netflix, and will premiere there later this year.