"But what happened, Miss Simone?" asked poet Maya Angelou, after interviewing the jazz singer in 1970. "Specifically, what happened to your big eyes that quickly veil to hide the loneliness?"
That's the question that Liz Garbus tries to answer in her new documentary on Netflix, What Happened, Miss Simone? Loneliness is a basic tenet of Nina Simone's life. From a childhood practicing classical music alone at the piano to the isolation of mental illness later in life, Simone suffered heavily in her quest to (unsuccessfully) become the first black classical pianist in America and (successfully) become a "rich black bitch."
Garbus, responsible for docs like The Farm: Angola, USA and Bobby Fischer Against the World, walks us skillfully through the Wikipedia points of Simone's life. With so many interviews and lushly filmed performances, there's no need for a voiceover narrator — Simone's unique voice is strong enough to carry the viewer through the movie.
As the 1960s burned, Simone took her godhead of talent to voice the passion of the times. As a documentarian, Garbus' best work comes in the layering of Simone's civil rights catalog with images from the movement.
"To me, American society is nothing but a cancer and it must be exposed before it can be cured," Simone says, over a montage of National Guard soldiers firing on demonstrators. "I am not the doctor to cure it. All I can do is expose the sickness."
As Simone finishes her diagnosis, the stream shows a young black man struck with the butt of a rifle, going down to the concrete hard, visibly concussed, in the way that all her white audiences in America and Europe had never heard before.
After The Struggle, it would have been nice to see a little more of Simone's personal melees for happiness. Not out of a couch-side schadenfreude drive, but to witness just how great the spectrum was between glamour and sadness in Simone's life. Garbus gets into Simone's mental illness, IRS woes and dealings with her abusive cad of a husband/manager, but touches only slightly on her series of expatriotisms in Switzerland, France, Liberia and Barbados.
Nothing is mentioned of her affair with Barbadian Prime Minister Errol Barrow, and nary a word is raised about Simone putting a bullet in a teenage neighbor boy in France for heckling her.
In the feel-good quotes at the end of What Happened, family friend and Malcolm X's daughter Ilyasah Shabazz states, "As I got older, I started to look at her and I thought to myself, 'wow she's from another time.' But she was not at odds with the times, the times were at odds with her."
In 1978, in ill health at a performance in London, Simone voiced her anachronism a little differently. Just before leaving the stage, she offered: "I am not of this planet."
Dir. Liz Garbus feat. Nina Simone, Lisa Simone Kelly, Attallah Shabazz, Ilyasah Shabazz, Andrew Stroud
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