‘What Happened, Miss Simone?’

Review: 'What Happened, Miss Simone?'

LIKE JIM MORRISON or Janis Joplin or Kurt Cobain, Nina Simone deserves to be talked about as one of the artists of the 20th Century who as nearly as possible changed the culture with her artistic talents and force of personality. And like Morrison and Joplin and Cobain and, I suspect, many other creative geniuses––and I use that word sparingly––who never left the dive-bars and entered the mainstream, Nina Simone often burned far too brightly.

The Netflix original, What Happened, Miss Simone?, directed by Liz Garbus, is an attempt to get at why, precisely, everything fell apart for this towering personality, whose music alternately broke hearts and inspired revolution. The film opens with a performance from a later stage in Nina Simone’s career––a jazz festival, in Switzerland, where Simone looks out at an expectant audience with a hard expression for what becomes an almost uncomfortable length of time before breaking into a broad smile. ‘I have decided,’ she says, ‘to do no more jazz festivals . . .’ It’s a clip that gives the viewer an early taste of Simone’s extraordinary magnetism, but also the complexity and inner conflict that so deeply affected her later in her career.


Even the songs from Simone’s body of work which were not explicitly provocative or subversive or political––for instance the civil rights anthem ‘Mississippi Goddam’––carried within their melodies or their lyrics or within Simone’s performance a defiance of, and desire to be free from, the prisons of race and gender and oppressive relationships.


Garbus tells Simone’s story from her childhood in an Alabama marked by severe racial tension, where she showed the work ethic, ambition and desire for freedom which were characteristic of her career. Simone, it becomes clear, placed a premium on freedom––what she defined as ‘living without fear’––and which she experienced only infrequently and usually on-stage, and as her story unravels it’s plain to see how many different forces were exerted on her from an early age all the way through to her death at the age of seventy. Even the songs from Simone’s body of work which were not explicitly provocative or subversive or political––for instance the civil rights anthem ‘Mississippi Goddam’––carried within their melodies or their lyrics or within Simone’s performance a defiance of, and desire to be free from, the prisons of race and gender and oppressive and unhealthy relationships.

The interviews with Simone’s longtime bandmate, Al Schackman––who Simone herself describes as an intensely ‘sensitive man’––are particularly touching and illuminating. Schackman remained one of the constants in the life of Simone, who she described as sharing a kind of symbiosis with her: he was able to adapt instantly when Simone changed key––as she did often and without warning––and there’s a clear suggestion that Schackman was in tune with her emotionally as well as musically. Fittingly, some of the best insights into Simone’s life and character come from him. He and another friend of Simone, the Dutch photographer Gerrit de Bruin, nearly as possible saved Simone’s life in the 1980s when her behaviour became increasingly erratic. (She was subsequently diagnosed as bipolar).


The interviews with Simone’s longtime bandmate, Al Schackman are particularly touching and illuminating. He was able to adapt instantly when Simone changed key and there’s a clear suggestion that Schackman was in tune with her emotionally as well as musically.


Like Mitch Winehouse in Asaf Kapadia’s excellent documentary, Amy, or the tabloid journalist Nick Pisa in Amanda Knox, Nina’s abusive husband Andrew Stroud emerges early on as the designated villain of the story. But while the charge levelled at Mitch Winehouse was neglect, and at Nick Pisa a sort of callous opportunism, the sins of Simone’s husband, as described in the documentary, seem infinitely more direct and deliberate. Simone described in one interview how, after being handed a slip of paper by a man at a nightclub, Stroud beat her ‘all the way home, up the stairs . . . I couldn’t open my eyes for two weeks.’ It is to the credit of Stroud that he agreed to appear at all in the documentary, which casts him as a cruel and manipulative man who wasted no time in taking over Simone’s career and whose sole intention was to make as much money as possible, even if that meant working his wife into the ground. But the lives of complex people are invariably complex themselves, and it is Simone herself who emerges in the latter part of the documentary as a ‘villain’ of sorts, abandoning her family for Liberia and then, upon her return, beating her daughter Lisa so badly that she contemplated suicide.

Lisa, for her part, neither condemns her mother completely nor exonerates her for her shortcomings, choosing instead to remember her in her totality. Garbus, too, tells Simone’s story without bias. The resultant picture which emerges of the woman dubbed the High Priestess of Soul is neither idealised nor degraded. Instead, it is a picture of a brilliant and complex woman with some very dark demons who it seems was never quite able to find the ‘freedom’ that she was seeking.

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‘Bobby Fischer Against the World’

Bobby Fischer Against the World

IT’S BECOMING SOMETHING of a tired saying to note that people exceptional in their professional lives are exceptional in other areas of life, too, in part because it’s cliché and tends to be lazily ascribed, and in part because often its use subtly excuses any number of antisocial or immoral acts, so long as they’re committed by someone who happens to be a dab hand at playing guitar or kicking a football or painting. But that isn’t, I hasten to add, to say that the saying doesn’t contain a grain or two of truth–only, that truly exceptional people are rare.

Bobby Fischer, the American chess grandmaster, might just be one of those people, and Bobby Fischer Against the World, directed by What Happened, Miss Simone? director Liz Garbus, is as good an examination of his tragic and bizarre life as you’re likely to find. Like Miss Simone, Garbus’ film proceeds linearly through the life of its subject, beginning with his birth to Regina, a “homeless” Jewish Communist activist with no intention of letting her son interfere with her goals and Hans-Gerhardt Fischer, a German biophysicist who, it later transpired, wasn’t his father at all. From here, and with the contributions of prominent figures from the world of chess such as Garry Kasparov, Larry Evans, Asa Hoffman and others, Garbus patiently and sympathetically leads us through the events that prematurely ended Fischer’s career.

Garbus draws on a wealth of television interviews and game footage to create a narrative that runs, if not exactly seamlessly, then smoothly enough, and is bolstered by talking heads who collectively play the role of narrator without, so to speak, giving the game away for those unfamiliar with Fischer’s life. The time Garbus devotes to Fischer’s early life is an investment that pays off in the later parts of the film, and the slightly exploitative, hard-to-avoid armchair psychologising in which, consciously or unconsciously, she tempts you to engage is softened a little by the decidedly sympathetic tone she maintains throughout the film, and the kind accounts given by the diverse figures from Fischer’s life that she interviews.


Garbus draws on a wealth of television interviews and game footage to create a narrative that runs, if not exactly seamlessly, then smoothly enough, and is bolstered by talking heads who collectively play the role of narrator without, so to speak, giving the game away for those unfamiliar with Fischer’s life.


Chess is an extraordinary game. Richard Reti called it “the triumph of the intellect and genius over lack of imagination; the triumph of personality over materialism”. It is, if I can put it this way, the most purely intellectual sport, and so there’s the implication that its most accomplished players are particularly gifted in this respect. Even among these grandmasters, Fischer was exceptional, and Garbus captures this well. In an era when the Soviet Union, in an effort to show their perceived intellectual superiority, invested heavily in the promotion of chess and chess-players, Fischer, a lonely child from an unremarkable and unstable Brooklyn family, developed an interest and then a passion and then an obsession which led one commentator to say that he had dedicated more time to playing chess than all of his counterparts on the Soviet team combined. Malcolm Gladwell, who makes a welcome if brief appearance as a talking head, discusses his now-famous 10,000-hour rule, which states that in order to achieve mastery at any given pursuit, you must dedicate 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to that activity. It doesn’t take much mental arithmetic to get a sense of how much time Fischer must have dedicated to his art.

Despite their many differences, I was reminded, as I watched Bobby Fischer Against the World, of Christine, the Antonio Campos film about Christine Chubbuck, a TV reporter who shot herself live on air. Both directors treat their subjects with not only empathy but something approaching affection, and this makes any accusation of exploitation a weak one. Garbus’ film is, first and foremost, a fair and fairly thorough examination of the life of what might have been the best chess player ever to play the game.

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