Yosra Osman takes a look at Netflix’s original documentary about the life of one of the world’s most talented and complicated performers.
What Happened, Miss Simone? is a daring title. Taken from Maya Angelou’s 1970 article for Redbook magazine, Liz Garbus’ documentary seeks to answer this question with a wealth of archive footage and interviews. Does it succeed? Well, partly.
In keeping with the theme of examining misunderstood, gifted musicians, it seemed only fitting to watch What Happened, Miss Simone? after having loved the fantastic Amy by Asif Kapadia. I could even watch this Netflix original documentary in the comfort of my own home, with a pack of chocolate digestives and a cuppa. Perfect.
To start with the good, there’s no way any documentary could make Nina Simone’s extraordinary life seem dull. This is a woman who was so much more than her magnificent voice. Eunice Waymon, as she was originally named, wanted to be the first black classical pianist in America, but was rejected from the Curtis Institute of Music at 19 because she was black.
After performing in jazz bars with a new name (changed so her parents wouldn’t find out she had moved on from the more traditional classical music), she rose to fame in the Civil Rights movement. With her strong, evocative vocals, and a commanding presence, she was a force to be reckoned with – one of the most powerful, artistic singers of all time.
So, what did happen, Miss Simone? The question is frustratingly answered. To put the title into context, it’s best to quote Maya Angelou fully:
“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?”
The documentary’s answer is a little too simplistic to fully appreciate what did happen, ignoring much of the context surrounding Simone’s life just like it does its title. It is descriptive, rather than enquiring, which wouldn’t have bothered me so much if it didn’t simplify Simone’s psychological problems in the last half hour of the film. It feels as if it just wants to tick off of the most basic requirements needed to answer a question that deserves to be probed further.
Interview clips with her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, and former husband, Andrew Stroud, are useful but paint an uncomplicated picture. Part of me is even horrified that her abuser, a man who allegedly put a gun to her head and raped her, is given so much to say in the documentary. Is this really reliable?
It’s all the more frustrating that such depictions really taint the presentation of Simone by, at times, making her seem just crazy, even frightening. Of course she wasn’t perfect: she was volatile, she was herself abusive, but she was a complex personality that deserves a more complex treatment, which doesn’t just brush aside her talent and musical genius.
And so it is that the documentary is mainly saved by the energy of Miss Simone herself. There is some really excellent footage of concerts, where her commanding presence is all that’s needed to keep you engaged. Mixed with previously unheard interviews, and extracts from her diary, What Happened, Miss Simone? at least gives a fascinating glimpse into the singer’s magnetism. As a huge fan of Nina Simone, perhaps I am being too harsh, but if the film does offer that little glimpse, then, of course, I’ll admit it’s worth a look.905 Views
Yosra Osman is a mid-twenties film fan and self-confessed daydreamer of dangerous proportions