What happened, Miss Simone? (2015, directed by Liz Garbus)
[No 23 of 52 in #52FilmsByWomen]
Nina Simone is one of the legendary musical icons whose style is so well-known and distinctive that movies use her music to evoke a certain emotion or theme. It is the same way that music from David Bowie, Bob Dylan or The Rolling Stones are used. That’s actually how I discovered Nina Simone, as her song Sinnerman appeared in the soundtrack for 2006’s Miami Vice. Her other song Blackbird was a significant plot point in Beyond the Lights, and Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood appeared in the closing credits of BBC’s Luther.
Being a legendary musician whose music resonated with people across multiple generations, exploring the person behind the music is almost guaranteed to be an interesting journey. Through the words of her daughter, ex-husband, friends and fellow musician, footage of Nina herself, documentary explores her life starting from her as a four-year old learning classical piano from a white teacher.
Growing up in a time before the Civil Rights movement took hold, African-Americans are still segregated in many parts of American society. We learn the story about how the four-year-old Eunice Waymon (Simone’s birth name) refuses to play in her piano recital unless her parents are allowed to sit in the front row among the other white people. Then we chart her journey as a musician, eventually seeing her being very much a significant part of the Movement, getting to know Martin Luther King Jr. and many other important figures from that era.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, such a unique artist and musician does lead a troubled life indeed. There are interviews of Simone where she candidly speaks about her troubles with her husband, (which involves disturbing accounts of domestic violence) and her struggle with depression and being diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
This documentary sums up her life in a clear and concise way, and doesn’t shy away from showing us the bad things done by Nina herself, in addition to other bad and unsavoury things that happened to her. Her daughter was brutally honest in telling stories about her mother. Like everyone else, Nina Simone is a complex person with many facets and desires, and all are presented to us without judgement, which is left to the viewer.