A classically trained musical genius and Black Power icon, Nina Simone has influenced scores of other musicians, from John Lennon to Adele. Born Eunice Waymon in Tryon, N.C., Simone began playing piano at age 3. Showing talent from the start, a local music teacher took an immediate interest in the young girl, determined to guide her into a career as a concert pianist; the first African American to play Carnegie Hall. She underwent years of classical training, even spending time at Juilliard School. However, her dreams of being a concert pianist were dashed when her application to study at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Years later, Simone would confirm, as she suspected, that race had prevented her acceptance.
Since her family had moved to Philadelphia to support her dream, Simone immediately got to work, playing piano wherever she could to bring home a paycheck, though she managed to finally get a regular gig, the owner informed Nina she would have to sing if she wanted a paycheck. With that, a career was born.
Onstage at the Montreux festival in 1976, Simone stands next to her piano, as the crowd cheers a series of emotions, anger, frustration and fear seem to flash across her face. Finally, as she sits down at the piano, Simone seems flooded with confidence as she delivers a powerful performance. For all her success, Nina Simone was rarely comfortable, except when she was onstage.
Directed by Liz Garbus (The Farm: Angola USA, Bobby Fischer Against the World) and made with the approval of the late Nina Simone’s estate and the on-camera cooperation of her only child, Lisa Simone Kelly, What Happened, Miss Simone? is a revealing portrait of a talented but troubled artist. “My mother was one of the greatest entertainers of all time, but she paid a price,” says Kelly. “My mother was Nina Simone 24-7, and that’s where it became a problem. When the show ended she was alone, fighting her own demons, full of anger and rage. She couldn’t live with herself, and everything fell apart.”
While interviews from those who knew Simone best—including her controversial ex-husband/manager Andrew Stroud, musicians who worked with her and friends—provide insight, but it’s the diary entries, letters, and archival interviews given by Simone herself that are truly revealing. While Andrew Stroud, a former vice cop, managed her career to financial success after they married in 1961, he was abusive. All of this is well documented in interviews and disturbing diary entries written by Simone. Its little wonder she came to feel her husband was working her too hard.
Stroud was none too pleased when his wife’s increasing involvement in the burgeoning civil rights movement caused her commercial viability to suffer. Nina Simone was undeterred. I was needed,” she says. “Singing to help my people became the mainstay of my life.” She wrote some of the movement’s most heartfelt songs; “Young, Gifted and Black” became an anthem of sorts.
Even as Nina Simone’s personal life began to unravel and her behavior grew erratic (she was diagnosed as bipolar during the 1980’s), few denied her talent. When all is said and done, perhaps the best part of What Happened, Miss Simone? is the opportunity to see Simone performing parts of more than two dozen songs in her one-of-a-kind voice. This documentary comes with my highest recommendation.
What Happened, Miss Simone? is presented on DVD largely in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio (some of the archival footage is somewhat narrower). Given the numerous source elements involved in putting together this documentary, video quality varies a bit. Some of the ghosting on the older segments is as a result of the source. The newer interview segments are sharp with a fine color palette.
The Master Audio 5.1 track works pretty well for this release. Unfortunately, the clips of Nina Simone’s performances are fairly short. However, what’s there is clear and pleasing, even if it’s not surround. Dialogue during the various interviews is clean, clear and concise.
English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish subtitles are included.
The following extras are available:
- Bonus Interviews (14:19) Extended interview clips from those featured in the film.
- Audio CD Featuring Music from Film: Track List:
1) I Loves You Porgy
2) Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood
3) I Put A Spell On You
4) Strange Fruit (Live in New York, 1965)
6) Mississippi Goddam (Live In New York, 1964)
7) Little Girl Blue (Live In New York, 1964)
8) Don’t Smoke In Bed (Live In New York, 1964)
9) My Baby Just Cares For Me
10) Lilac Wine
11) Black Is The Color Of My True Love’s Hair
12) Night Song
13) Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out (Live in New York, 1965)
14) Feeling Good
15) Ne Me Quitte Pas