A new chance to meet Nina Simone

Lichi D'Amelio reviews What Happened Miss Simone?, a new documentary about one of the most important and underappreciated musical artists of the last century.

Nina Simone performs at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1976Nina Simone performs at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1976

"MY MOTHER was one of the greatest entertainers of all time. When she was performing, she was an anomaly. She was brilliant. She was loved."

These words from Lisa Simone Kelly, Nina Simone's only child, start off Liz Garbus' beautifully composed and riveting documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? honoring the musician and civil rights activist who came to be known as "The High Priestess of Soul."

"Nina Simone is one...of the greatest artists of the 20th century," Garbus said on Democracy Now! "And possibly because of race and gender--and in her case, a combination of the two--[she has] not been regarded that way."

The movie's title is a reference to a 1970 article in Redbook magazine written by Maya Angelou. By that time, Simone had left the U.S.--embittered and unable to find steady work, the movement she'd put all of her hopes into was on its descent, and some of her closest friends and compatriots--leaders of the civil rights movement--were dead.

Angelou's piece laments the overwhelming loss: "What happened, Miss Simone? Specifically, what happened to your big eyes that quickly veil to hide the loneliness? To your voice, that has so little tenderness, yet overflows with your commitment to the battle of Life? What happened to you?"

Review: Movies

What Happened, Miss Simone?, a documentary directed by Liz Garbus, streaming on Netflix.

Part of what makes the film so engrossing is that Garbus is able to tell the story of Simone's extraordinary life largely through Simone's own words. The director set out to "comb the earth for all remnants of Nina telling her story. Radio interviews, TV interviews, backstage chats at performances...Diaries, letters, notebooks left behind."

Garbus was able to find over 25 recorded hours of interviews that Simone had done with television and film producer Stephen Cleary for I Put a Spell on You, a book they wrote together in 1992. The director found the perfect narrator. This meticulous research combined with interviews with Simone's daughter, ex-husband, closest friends, neighbors and musical collaborators contemporaries make this film the most intimate portrayal yet of the artist and required watching for all of Nina's loyal fans.

But What Happened Miss Simone? should also be watched by those who have yet to fully discover the limitless musical brilliance and wonder that she encapsulates. For those on the left of the political spectrum especially, a lesson about the incredible role that an artist can play at crucial times is only a Netflix account and a few clicks away.

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SIMONE'S VOICE is both inimitable and immediately recognizable--sometimes "gravelly" and other times "coffee and cream," as she describes it. Something in her voice grabs her listeners, shakes them, and makes them feel whatever she wanted them to feel. Anyone who's ever heard her rendition of Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell on You" knows this to be true.

Fewer people think of her as a great pianist, but she was that as well. The long, gorgeous piano solos in her version of the 1920s hit "Love Me or Leave Me" give a small taste of the depths of her talent.

Simone worked hard from a very young age to achieve that artistry. She was born Eunice Waymon in 1933 to devoutly religious parents in Tryon, North Carolina, where the sounds of revival church music ignited her musical inclination.

At three years of age, she took to the piano, and her potential became immediately obvious. Her parents, with the help of Muriel Mazzanovich, an Englishwoman for whom her mother had worked, decided to nurture what they saw as a natural gift. Soon, the community of churchgoers started the Eunice Waymon Fund, with the goal of helping Eunice become the first Black female concert pianist.

Waymon fell deeply in love with classical music--Bach in particular--but the hours of practice necessary to develop her skills meant that her childhood was a lonely one. Still, the Eunice Waymon Fund paid her way into Julliard--an opportunity to which very few Blacks in the U.S. had access.

After a year, she applied to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Her parents moved to the city, assuming that their daughter's immense talent would get her accepted. Instead, she was rejected, in perhaps the most bitter and jarring disappointment of her life. Waymon's conviction (shared by others) that she had deserved to get into the school drove her to the painful realization that she was rejected because she was Black. It was a wound that would never fully heal.

Her sudden need to support herself now that a career as a concert pianist was no longer a possibility led Waymon to the world of the nightclubs of Atlantic City. She changed her name to Nina Simone to remain anonymous from her mother, who would have strongly disapproved of her playing "the devil's music." She also began to sing. The world of music was about to change.

In 1957, Simone met Al Schackman, who would become her lead guitarist and musical director for nearly 40 years. The profound mutual respect and admiration shared by Schackman and Simone would last throughout her life, and would provide the beautifully complex musical arrangements that became her trademark.

The seeming ease with which she could move a crowd--to be so candid and give herself so completely and genuinely to her audience--became the defining feature of her unforgettable performances.

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LISTENING TO Nina Simone's music is always a moving experience, but watching her perform takes the intensity to a level of greatness that can only be described as otherworldly. Her songs could convey fearless joy, deep sorrow, bitterness and rage, playfulness or unabashed sexuality-- her deep, sensual voice and her masterful fingers immediately reaching her listeners, mesmerizing them, forcing her emotions onto them.

Most people associate Nina Simone with "Mississippi Goddamn"--the passionate, searing indictment of the Jim Crow U.S. that became the anthem of the civil rights movement.

She wrote it in 1963 immediately after the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four girls ages 11 to 14. Having already had her first smash hit in 1958 with "I Loves You, Porgy," a song from the opera Porgy and Bess by George Gershwin, Simone was already a star. But "Mississippi Goddamn" would mark a turning point in her career--her political awakening.

In the film, comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory explains the impact of the song:

Mississippi Goddamn. Whoa. It got my attention. What she was doing was different. There's something about a woman--if you look at all the suffering that Black folks went through--not one Black man would dare say 'Mississippi Goddamn.' And then to have someone with her stature talking about your problem--you know how happy they had to be? We all wanted to say it! She said it! Mississippi Goddamn!

Simone quickly threw herself into the politics swirling around her. She was surrounded by some of the most prominent, important figures in the Civil Rights movement: Lorraine Hansberry was her daughter's godmother; Malcolm X's family lived next door; James Baldwin and Langston Hughes were dear friends. She met and spoke with the leadership of the movement--even taking her band to Selma and performing "Mississippi Goddamn." As her daughter puts it in the film, "she found a purpose for the stage."

Simone was never one to keep her mouth shut. She spoke openly about her political opinions, on stage and off. "I just want to go in that den of those elegant people, with their old ideas, smugness, and just drive them insane," she says in the film about some of the audiences for which she played.

This soon began to affect her career. It also precipitated the split with her emotionally and physically abusive husband and manager--a former cop who was uninterested in the civil rights movement and felt that Simone had become "sidetracked" by it, hurting the career that he had helped to launch.

Simone suffered tremendously at his hands, writing about his cruel treatment of her often in her journal entries. It would be many years before she would finally leave him, but she remained in the struggle throughout.

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THE MOVEMENT raged on, and Nina Simone raged right along with it. Her performances became infamously political. "I choose to reflect the times and the situations in which I find myself," she says in the film. "How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?"

Three days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968, Simone sang perhaps one of the most beautiful homages ever to grace a stage. Written by her bass player, Gene Taylor, "Why? (The King of Love is Dead)" poignantly asks, "Will my country stand or fall? Is it too late for us all? And did Martin Luther King just die in vain?"

For someone whose talent came so naturally, nothing seemed to come easy for Nina Simone. She endured pain, fear and bitter disappointment throughout what was an extraordinary life in a world on which she's left a mark as deep as her deepest wounds.

The eventual collapse of the civil rights movement was a crushing disappointment that was too much to bear, and Simone eventually left the U.S. for Liberia. She lived in a number of other countries as well, before settling in France. Her life during that time was marked by financial hardship and volatile relationships, until she was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Her popularity was renewed in 1987 after Chanel No. 5 used her famous 1958 song "My Baby Just Cares for Me" in a commercial. Audiences came out to see her and packed auditoriums for years to come.

For those lucky enough to have seen her live--as I had an opportunity to do at an amazing 2000 performance in San Francisco--the experience would leave a lifelong appreciation for her music and her soul.

As she wrote in I Put a Spell on You, she performed "to make people feel on a deep level. It's difficult to describe because it's not something you can analyze; to get near what it's about, you have to play it. And when you've caught it, when you've got the audience hooked, you always know, because it's like electricity hanging in the air."

Garbus has given the world a new opportunity to get to know a brilliant and important civil rights icon who isn't always thought of as such. Those who have been appreciating the treasure that is Nina Simone can get to know her even better. And those who might be just discovering her have a glorious experience ahead. As Garbus movingly writes in her director's statement,

Bringing this film into the world now, in January 2015, I am aware of the ripeness of this historical moment. A spark has been reignited in the civil rights movement by the high-profile killings of unarmed Black men by the white police. In recent months, the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, looked not unlike those of Selma, Mississippi, where Nina played, amidst threats of mortal danger, her rousing anthem "Mississippi Goddam."

Late in her life, Nina mourned the death of the movement, and of its leaders, lamenting that her civil rights songs were not relevant anymore. Today, "Mississippi Goddam" feels as relevant as ever. I wish she were here to inspire us with her music, her incisive words and unrelenting commitment to truth and justice.

As Maya Angelou summed up in her article about Nina in Redbook: "She is loved or feared, adored or disliked, but few who have met her music or glimpsed her soul react with moderation. She is an extremist, extremely realized." I wonder if it's too much to hope that in witnessing her life, other artists may be moved to step into the great void she left behind.