Saturday, June 27, 2015


The life and artistry of Nina Simone illuminated in poignant documentary

The best documentaries exist as something more allegorical than the rote, history-lesson cataloging of the biographical details of a public figure’s life. Also, in spite of the vast scope of the subject’s fame and influence, they tend to be more effective when honing in on a selective perspective or point of view. 
In the marvelous What Happened, Miss Simone?, documentary filmmaker Liz Garbus explores the personal and professional life of the legendary jazz/blues/ folk artist by submitting her film as the literal answer to the titular question, one originally asked by author/poet Maya Angelou in a 1970 article penned for Redbook magazine.

Angelou’s interview with Simone coincided with the famed singer/composer/musician's turbulent transformation from jazz concert poet to The High Priestess of Soul in the late 60s. A time when the Civil Rights Movement so significantly influenced her work that she alienated her pop music fan base while simultaneously giving voice and inspiration to the nation’s unsung with her Top 100 single, “Young, Gifted, & Black” ( a song co-written with Weldon Irvine to, as Simone put it, “Make black children all around the world feel good about themselves forever.”).

The question Angelou posed: “Miss Simone, you are idolized, even loved, by millions now. What happened, Miss Simone?” - is tellingly ambiguous and suggest perhaps a contradiction. Is it the typical press agent query, “How did you get to where you are?”, or the more complex and infinitely more painful, “What happened to you in your life to make your music so raw and impassioned?” 
The High Priestess of Soul
(1933 - 2003) 
Garbus’ documentary, co-produced by and currently streaming on Netflix, examines the life of Nina Simone by turning the story of her tumultuous career and private life into a larger examination of what can happen when an artist—an individual devoted to the freest expression of truth—is born into a society which tells them everything they are, everything that comprises their very essence and being, is unworthy of dreams. Unworthy because of the color of their skin. The broadness of their nose. The thickness of their lips. That they are born female. As the film progresses and grows darker than you might expect, the social focus of the opening question morphs into the personal, "How did it come to this?"

As an African-American piano prodigy born in the Jim Crow-era South (“I played the boogie at (age) three and gave concerts at twelve”), Nina Simone, nee Eunice Waymon, was an anomaly in her small North Carolina hometown. Crossing train tracks to the “white” section of town to take piano lessons, practicing so much she barely had a childhood; Simone’s keenly-felt separateness defined her attitude towards both her musical gift and her ambitions.
Simone dreamed big: she wanted more than anything to be the first black female classical pianist to play Carnegie Hall. But when she was turned down by the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and had to take up performing jazz and pop music in clubs, the teenage Simone felt for the first time that most common, but nonetheless soul-killing, of African-American experiences- being certain but never truly knowing if race played a part in her rejection.
Nina Simone graduated valedictorian of her high school class and was awarded
a one-year scholarship at Julliard School of Music in New York
With this, the seeds of rage, self-doubt, and indignation began to take root within her just as firmly as her talents as a singer and musician blossomed. Fueled by an ambition to succeed, blessed with a talent that couldn’t be ignored, yet led by circumstance down a path not wholly of her choosing, Nina Simone’s demons were manifest in the same questions that plagued many frustrated African-Americans in pursuit of the American dream in those nascent civil rights years. The lingering oppression of separatism and Jim Crow led Langston Hughes to pen the 1951 poem, “Harlem.” A poem whose words articulated the conundrum facing all black artists and dreamers in America.

What Happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? 
Or fester like a sore
And then run? 
Does it stink like rotten meat? 
Or crust and sugar over like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

Throughout her life, Nina Simone’s mainstream success stood in the shadow of her unrealized dream to be a classical musician. Similarly, the material rewards of her success only reinforced her childhood sense of isolation…a gap she always sought to bridge with her music. Following the 1963 murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers and the Alabama church bombing that killed four little girls that same year;  the discrepancy she felt between her quality of life and that of the average black person living in America, altered and politicized her artistic expression.

We witness Nina Simone's transformation from demure, evening-gowned chanteuse playing to an all-white audience on TV's Playboy After Dark, to vibrant political activist joyously singing songs of protest and revolution (No pacifist, she. Simone believed in violent retaliation). The documentary juxtaposes these wildly contrasting professional images with equally at-odds-with-themselves accounts of her stormy private life.
Revolution Evolution
Through interview footage, rare recordings, snippets from her journals, and a mercifully sparse sprinkling of talking head commentary from her daughter Lisa Simone Kelly (the film’s executive-producer), husband /manager Andrew Stroud, and lifelong friends; we learn not only was Simone’s  art and life matched in complexity and anguish, but that each in many ways grew out of the other.

What Happened, Miss Simone? is gratifying on many levels. As someone who knew of  Nina Simone, but next to nothing about her, this look at her life is quite revelatory. Hats off to director Liz Garbus (Love, Marilyn) for mounting such a clear-eyed portrait of an legendary icon. I also like that it’s a fairly straightforward documentary. Eschewing the contemporary trend toward visual gimmickry and the overuse of showy graphics, What Happened, Miss Simone? deals with its subject in a direct, head-on manner complimentary to the great woman herself. Neither hagiography nor hatchet-job, What Happened, Miss Simone? is merely honest. Honest in a way that ultimately proves very real and very moving.
What Happened, Miss Simone? has some exceptional interview footage

*Scary side-note (make that terrifying): Sobering and sad how so much of  the film's difficult-to-watch violent footage from the 60s Civil Rights Movement looks like just America in 2015.

Although running a brisk 100 minutes, a major asset of What Happened, Miss Simone? is the amount of time it allocated to footage of Simone performing. Her voice has mesmerized me for years, but it's truly a remarkable experience watching her in action. She's electric and unpredictable. I especially got a charge out of a bit of concert footage showing Simone stopping mid-song to point to and shout authoritatively at someone in the audience, "Hey, girl, sit down!" followed by a loooong unbroken stare and a second demand, "Sit DOWN!" Following a satisfied nod of the head signifying either the patron's compliance or execution, Simone calmly resumes the song at the exact point she left off.

My mother loved Nina Simone and played her records constantly when I was growing up. But as a child, I actually thought Nina Simone’s music was kind of scary. Not scary as in frightening, but somehow deeply sad and troubling in a way I was too young to understand. Of course, in retrospect, I know it was because the songs were too real. They weren't pop, they weren't escapist...they were authentic. Authentic in a way where I must have sensed (in that way kids can) that perhaps in her songs, she was saying things my mom felt, but could never say aloud.
Many years later, when the soundtrack to the 1993 movie, Point of No Return, introduced a whole new generation to Nina Simone (mostly hipsters and yuppies who, like those Playboy penthouse guests of yore, adored black music but black people, not so much), I seemed to listen to her with fresh ears. In place of what I once heard in her voice that scared me I heard the kind of naked self-exposure of a true artist. She wasn't just trying to make pretty sounds or packaging melodies for cocktail party consumption.
She was sharing the dejection of a sensitive, impressionable child told by the country of her birth that she was somehow less valuable, less beautiful, because of her skin. She sang about being a black woman of financial privilege who had to put on a smile and entertain while all around her African-American figures of hope were being killed off, one by one.
She opened up about her frustration in knowing that the more she sang about her personal truth as a black woman, the smaller her audiences would grow. In the midst of this was a woman battling a mental illness, a woman in an abusive relationship who visited that same violence onto her daughter. The dark, the light.
Nina Simone's genius lie in her ability to make poetry out of the contradictory and confounding ugliness and beauty that was her life. That triumph of What Happened, Miss Simone? is that it presents these sometimes unpleasant realities without ever diminishing the artistic legacy of this legendary woman with the soul-searing voice who was rightfully dubbed, The High Priestess of Soul.

Copyright © Ken Anderson


  1. I hate to admit my cultural ignorance, but the way I learned about Nina Simone was back in the 1980s when Chanel No. 5 used her song "My Baby Just Cares for Me." I loved that snippet of the song I could hear in the background of the ad, but back in those pre-Google days you couldn't just identify a song in five seconds on a search engine. Finally, I discovered the name of the song and purchased a Nina Simone album featuring it. What a revelation! Her voice was so dark, almost rough, but full of emotion. After that, I bought several more of her records. She was never smooth or polished (and I think she had untreated bipolar disorder), but her depth of feeling, her commitment to music, and her genius shine through. I'm really looking forward to seeing this documentary.

    1. Hi Deb!
      Oh, that's not cultural ignorance. Really, even in the documentary they make reference to that very commercial regenerating Simone's seriously flagging career. If you were to look back at when she first came out, she was really in the company of a lot of heavy music hitters. Artists who were far more commercial than she, and who garnered the lion's share of press and media.
      To some degree she was know mostly to jazz enthusiasts until her political anthems of the 70s.
      I'm just pleased that after all this time her life and music is documented in a film. I'm also hoping this film helps to shelve a Simone bio starring Zoe Saldana that looks like an absolute train wreck.
      Hope you enjoy this when you see it.

      Oh, and thanks for the link to the commercial!

  2. Here's the link to the Chanel commercial:

  3. This sounds fascinating, I must check it out. At one time I worked with someone who was mad for Nina Simone and that is when I became more familiar with her and then of course Point of No Return raised her profile even more.

    I've always been more of a fan of Dinah Washington and Ella Fitzgerald but she was a distinctive talent who I'm curious to find out more about. Your description put me in mind of what sounds like a similar documentary-Anita O'Day - The Life Of A Jazz Singer which was a fascinating overview of that lady's turbulent life and craft. Best of all with that one is that she was still living at the time so they were able to speak to her and she was refreshingly honest about herself and the choices she made.

    1. Hi Joel
      It really is a fascinating documentary. I speak as someone who knew so little about her that ithe entire thing kept me in rapt attention. I wonder if someone who followed her career would find it as revelatory as I did.
      I have a couple of Anita O'Day songs on my ipod, but she's another one I know little about. Since i see the documentary you speak of is available on YouTube, maybe I'll check it out.
      I think the best thing about this documentary is that the life of an artist I really should have heard more about, is finally held up to the spotlight.

  4. cant wait to see it, after that great review

    1. I'm not fully certain you're not a robot, but thank you very much!

  5. Dear Ken: Hi!

    I had heard of Ms. Simone but had never heard her music before today. Thank you for the links you appended to your review. Her performing style is quite intense, both in times of quiet and in times of force. Her "Little Girl Blue" is contemplative, sad but also determined. Her "Young, Gifted and Black" is a justified war cry (listen to how she hits the word "Black" every time!) but with shades of hope and humor, too.

    As I've mentioned in the past, due to my day job as a therapist, I have a difficult time watching films that deal with trauma and suffering. But I think it would be good to give this documentary a try. As you describe above, Ms. Simone's life and the prejudice and struggles she faced teach us lessons that we still need to learn, today.

    Also, your reference to Ms. Simone's initial success as an "exotic" artist for primarily white audiences reminds me of the early career of my favorite black female artist (at least, of the era prior to the 1970s), Lena Horne. As someone who's white and a man, I can never know what it's like for a black woman to try to succeed and be recognized as an artistic force in herself, as opposed to being someone "acceptable" to mainstream (i.e. white) audiences. From what I've read, Ms. Horne struggled and raged over that conflict, and later disdained the "pretty" recordings and film appearances of her more youthful years. I love Ms. Horne's recordings of the 1940s and 1950s (and that probably says more about me than it does about Ms. Horne) but I can see that she had much more force and emotion in her work starting in the 1960s, and she seemed a more confident performer, too, less "coached" and more herself.

    Where am I going with these comments? I don't know. But I hope there will be a day when black children--the Nina Simones of the future, so to speak-- will be valued, praised and nurtured by the world at large for who they are, with their talents being allowed to shine.

    1. Hi David
      Wow! Never hearing her before today...that's great! Makes me glad I listed some of my favorites. Do you ever have songs you listen to SPECIFICALLY because you know they'll make you cry? That's what kind of relationship i have with Nina Simone. Whatever her music churns up in me, i seem to love going there. It's not sad crying, it's that return to emotion you sometimes long for if (like me) you live in Los Angeles.
      I remember you relaying in a previous post your feelings about films focused on suffering. There's a bit of that here, to be sure, but Simone is such a fighter the film feels less about, say, wallowing in her pain, than examining the part one's life plays in the creation of art.
      I mean today, what do we have? We have corporate pop performers who become multimillionaires after one album, then proceed to thereafter bore us with songs about how hard it is to be a celebrity.

      Simone's songs are about what she went through and the times she lived in. because she survived and fought, the hardships feel, as you said, full of lessons we still need to learn.

      Your bringing up Lena Horne is very apt, for here are two very different women with I would say equal wellsprings of rage. Their paths and struggles were very different, yet born of the same pressure to commercially dismiss who they really were in order to be do what they loved. I've never been much fond of Lena Horne's singing, but her anger I always thought was a thing of beauty.

      Lastly, your final comments echo what I felt when the film was over. We as a culture deprive ourselves of so much richness when we don't encourage people (artists in this instance) to believe that they have value and something worthwhile to share with the world.
      Excellent thoughts, David... thanks!

  6. According to my best friend, who saw one of her final performances, Miss Simone was an intimidating and imposing figure onstage...a diva with a very intense energy...she absolutely had a political message to we still need to fully learn, it seems.

    As a child, I was lucky enough to see Lena Horne onstage in her one-woman Broadway show back in 1979 or 1980...Miss Horne was also a fiery diva, but with more poignancy...she truly could have been as big a movie star as Garland, but the powers that be never gave her even one starring role. If only she had been cast as Julie in Showboat...

    Thanks for highlighting these pioneering performers...I look forward to checking out the Simone documentary.

    1. Hi Chris
      i hope you like the documentary when you get around to seeing it. I've watched it again since writing this.
      One of the many excellent things about this documentary is that, in showing so much of Simone's concert footage, you get a better idea of where her strong stage personality came from.
      Having suffered the indignities of growing up in the Jim Crow South, this very bright, exceptionally talented woman found that the stage was the one place where she was going to demand what she was never granted as a black woman in America: respect.
      Her training in classical music gave her a respect for the silent appreciation of concert goers and she was going to make sure that attention and respect was paid...if only for the time she occupied a stage.
      That's why, like Lena Horne, I respect these women who allowed a demand for respect to be labeled intimidating or tough or angry. In both instances, these women earned it and deserved it.
      You're lucky to have seen Horne on Broadway.
      I sense she'd make a fascinating subject for a documentary as well.
      Great to hear from you Chris! Thanks!

  7. Argyle here. I'm very interested to see this. She was someone I feel like I had always heard of but could never find what felt like the right point of entry. So, oddly, it was Sandra Bernhard's version of "Four Women" and a reference on a Grace Jones album that made me go out and buy a sketchy compilation CD which I still love and play. Her songs and recordings are brilliant. I love "Four Women", "I Loves You, Porgy" and "Mississippi Goddamn." But I really like anything of hers that I've heard. I don't know what else to say - she's someone you just have to hear. She was born in Tryon, NC which is not far geographically from where I grew up. Her autobiography "I Put a Spell on You" is definitely worth reading. Thanks again, Ken.

    1. Hey Argyle
      I too find that Simone is such an interesting artist, the more songs I hear, the more I appreciate that she was more than an entertainer- i really think she was an artist. She put so much of herself into her can definitely see it.
      I hope this documentary makes her more possible and more accessible to people. Like your own experience, i think many knowof her, but have no real point of entry to her music.
      I didn't even know she had an autobiography! Time to check out the local library! Thanks Argyle!

  8. Hi
    This was on my Netflix saved list and your review prompted me to watch "Miss Simone" ASAP!

    Watching the arc of Nina's life and career was fascinating. A child prodigy pianist starts singing as an adult because that's what night clubs want...and boom--a career is born! As with Lena, Nina "passes" in a sense, looking and performing in a style that is palatable to white audiences and boom--civil rights ignites Simone's activism. Nina's journey is incredible.

    On a lighter note: Can you imagine Nina Simone tolerating today's rude audiences? Simone would make Lupone look like Shirley Temple!

    Thanks, Ken!


    1. Hi Rick
      I found the film fascinating, too. And I definitely feel that it was at an advantage in knowing so little about her beforehand.
      What I liked about the career arc you speak of is that it is so fitting of what you would expect of an artist: she was so immersed in her music at a child, it almost seemed as if she suppressed her anger and turned it into ambition. But once she had her eyes opened by the violence erupting all around her, it's like she couldn't help herself- her music HAD to reflect and come out of what she was witnessing and what she was feeling. It's all very powerful to me.

      Today I bemoan the fact that all we have are entertainers, each just trying to get rich and stay relevant to the audience with the most spending power. But I see an America in crisis and no musicians seem to be responding to that in their music- they live in millionaire bubbles.
      And on the topic of Ms. Simone and today's audiences...oh no...the cell phone thing alone would have her entire performance comprised of her walking off.
      Thanks, Rick!

    2. Ken, your thought about today's entertainers crossed my mind, too. Today, it's all about lip-synching, dressing to shock, internet click bait, plastic surgery, and "branding" the artist...and on and on. And seeing Simone so blunt and powerful in her words and her music was a jolt!

      Cheers and let's hope this country gets through Independence Day without any shootings or church-burning!


    3. I may sound like an old poop to say it, but the whole "American Idol" "Star Search" instant pop star thing has been disastrous to music. Can you imagine the idiosyncratic talents of Midler, Cher, Simone, Mitchell, or Dylan surviving these moronic competitions?
      I can't relate to today's corporate music stars. they are the epitome of irrelevant.

      And hope you have a good July 4th weekend too! Your points are so well taken Indeed...scary what happens when the irrevocable winds of change start to blow. People (if I can call them that) act like animals fighting against extinction, unaware that they and their empty-hearted ideologies died long ago.

  9. Hi Ken, nice piece on a terrific film. I've long listened to and loved her music, but like you, knew little about her prior to watching the film (other than the fact that she could be "prickly" with audiences -- a review in the NY Times of a concert she played in NJ toward the end of her life quoted her as saying to the audience after one number, "I'll take that for applause...")

    As to your wondering if the film would be as revelatory and absorbing to people who'd watched her career as it unfolded, I think I can say yes, at least as far as my husband is concerned. He had followed her for her entire career (it was he who introduced me to her), yet didn't know half the specifics revealed in the documentary.

    Interestingly, when I asked if he'd ever seen her in person, he responded, "No, she scared me. I liked the music, but felt the anger, and didn't really know where to put that. It always kept me away from her live shows."

    I wonder how many other people had the same response, consciously or unconsciously...

    Glad you're shining a light on the film -- it really deserves a wide audience.

    All best,


    1. Hi Jeff
      Glad to hear you liked the film and that it offered something new to people familiar with Simone's career and music.

      The provocative thing about such a searing look into an artist’s life is that it provides insight into the age-old question of “Where does an artist’s voice come from?”

      I think Simone was always at odds with the desire of the populace who wished to turn her music into (as one critic put it) background music for hip, upscale cocktail parties, while ignoring the pain and anger that created her unique voice.

      As a society we give a wide berth to angry comics like Lenny Bruce and angry male musicians like the punk bands of the late 70s; but we somehow expect black artists, especially female, to create art non-reflective of the anger and frustrations of their lives.

      This film did a marvelous job of making me understand that Simone’s anger, scariness, and even contempt for her audience was precisely the source of her art and her pain. It seems like everyone loved her voice but preferred not to connect it to the life circumstances which shaped it.

      A black woman in America has plenty to be angry about, but what I hope a film like this does it help to put an end to the “angry black woman” narrative which is too easy and too dismissive. By putting her life and career in context, it challenges our culture’s requirement that artists struggling in a racist society produce work that doesn’t reflect the emotional fallout of that reality for fear it might make audiences uncomfortable.

      Like you, I hope this movie finds a broad audience as well, it certainly deserves it. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Jeff , and providing another opportunity to expound upon this fascinating documentary!

  10. Hello Ken, This sounds like a fascinating documentary that I have to see. I love Nina’s voice but I know very little about her life. I’m glad that this film will change that for me and many others. Having read your review she seemed like a very brave and complex person. It must have been a difficult life.

    It’s shocking to read about all the violence against black people still going on. It’s so sad that the situation isn’t better after all this time.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts about what Nina Simone has meant to you, your mother and African Americans. People should know more about this unique artist. I will try to listen to the records of Nina that you recommend.


    1. Hi Wille
      After so many years of those PR pieces disguised as documentaries on A&E Biography on TV, it's refreshing to see how powerful film can be in relating the life and events of someone in a way that allows you to make up your own mind about them.
      Many people are divided on Nina Simone the singer and Nina the woman, but this documentary provocatively calls upon those to examine what issue one might have with her. Because if it's her strength, her "anger" or her unwillingness to take anything from anybody (even her audiences), it provides insight into how an artist's voice is formed by their life.
      I think most people would have preferred she just be an entertainer, making liberals feel good about themselves because they owned a black woman's records and attended her concerts; but that she dared to be a person who challenged such complacency is what I loved learning about her.
      It's funny, had this film come out, say when Obama was first elected into office, I don't think it would have been as powerful (then we were all under the illusion that times had changed), but now in the face of America's uglier underbelly, the images of 1960s racist violence in the film look like they could have been filmed last month.
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts about the film and this post Wille. Much appreciated!

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    1. Hi Gregory
      A very poetically phrased appreciation of the artist.
      There is a quotation I keep running into on the internet- something about the role of art is not to reassure, but to make us uncomfortable.

      I think of Simone as an artist in a world who wanted her to be an entertainer. The dual resistance the expression of her personal truth faced because she was black and a woman, is what I think this documentary reveals beautifully.
      As a culture we have taken to our bosom and romanticized many tortures, arguably mentally ill white male artists, but people seemed to put a barrier up in regard to not knowing what to do with Simone's anger and passion.
      I'm so glad it's all there in her voice, in the songs she chose to sing, and in this documentary that captured this complex and troubled woman so artfully.
      Your comment is a lovely little poem to her spirit.