Review: What Happened, Miss Simone?

Before watching this documentary I had heard of Nina Simone but I didn’t know much about her (other than she was a jazz/blues singer) or her career, and I had only heard one of her songs previously (My Baby Just Cares For Me). So I was intrigued when I stumbled across this while searching through Netflix for something to watch on a Sunday afternoon.

What a fascinating and complicated woman Nina Simone was.

This film covers her life from her childhood in North Carolina, where she got her start in music by playing the piano for her preacher mother, to her later years as she struggled to maintain a career and, as it turns out, her sanity.

The story is almost told in the first person by Nina as she seemed to keep detailed diaries all her life and gave many searingly honest interviews, much of which is drawn upon along with contributions from her only child (a daughter) and those who worked with her including her long time musical collaborator and an old interview with her former husband.

This allowed for an amazingly intimate picture of her triumphs and struggles. 

One of the many things we learn about her was that she was a superb pianist. In fact that was her first love. Her life’s ambition was to be the first black female classical pianist to play the famed Carnegie Hall in New York. She worked tirelessly to achieve this goal, putting in hours and hours of practice but it was sadly not to happen that way. 

Her life direction was changed thanks to one single act of racism when her application to the Curtis Institute of Music was denied. And yes – she was good enough to have made it. Her audition was well received and she was already studying at the Julliard School of Music. She was convinced her skin colour was the cause. She would later say that although she had been aware of racism before this incident, it was one of the first times it had affected her in such a direct way. 

So in order to earn money to live she started playing the piano in clubs which eventually lead to her singing career and her passion for song.

For me this is one of the major triumphs of the documentary. It manages to convey her spiritual connection to music, how she lived and breathed it and how it came to dominate her life to the point that she couldn’t really sleep as she had music playing in her head all the time, or songs waiting to be born. Her relationship with the world was through her music. This was the way she expressed herself and it was her most powerful communication tool. 

In the modern world of mass marketed by the numbers music this was almost a revelation, something that is not often seen in the mainstream media of today.

And she was successful. Immensely so but it came at a very high price.

She endured a volatile marriage (to a man who was a former policeman and who became her manager) which included beatings and a punishing work schedule that didn’t allow her much time to rest or be with her daughter. This also contributed to her bouts of deep depression and what was then an undiagnosed case of bipolar disorder. This wouldn’t be treated with medication until much much later in her life. Sadly it was something she struggled with unaided for many years. 

But it was her involvement with the civil rights movement and the fight against racial injustice in the United States that would come to dominate her life and the filmmakers again do a terrific job of conveying this to the watcher. Nina became one of the leading figures in the movement, using her voice and her songwriting ability to articulate all of the feelings of hurt, anger and injustice felt by black communities at the way they were being treated. She was very close to many of the leading personalities in the bitter struggle for equality including Malcom X and Dr Martin Luther King Jr. 

And she became quite militant in her thinking even to the point of advocating for armed revolution and a separate black state. This of course started to have a detrimental effect on her career. But it was the assassination of Dr King that lead her to abandon the United States and move to Libera in Africa where her carrer stalled and almost died completely. She later moved to Switzerland and then France where she ended up living in squalor while playing small clubs for next to nothing, her mental condition still going untreated. 

She was later scooped up by friends who settled her in Amsterdam, got her seen by a doctor and helped her to restart her career, in effect guide her back to her first love – music. She continued to perform until her death in 2003.

This was an excellent watch, a thoroughly engrossing and very personal look into the life of a musical wonder. A woman who felt and thought deeply. A woman who suffered and fought. A woman who was buffeted by brutal circumstances she couldn’t control but who also was sometimes her own worst enemy. 

I came out of this watch with a deep respect for Nina Simone, an imperfect human being who kept on fighting and existing despite all of life’s cruelties.

Even if you are not a fan of jazz or blues music this is an absolute must see. The human story within it is fascinating, powerful and very moving.

Rating: 5 Stars.

Watched: 4 August 2019.

(Header Image: Skitterphoto)

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