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.