WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE? was presented as part of the Documentary Premieres programme at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. For more showtimes, head here.
At the Q&A following the first Sundance screening of What Happened, Miss Simone? an audience member commented, “Often the question is asked, ‘Did the person make history or did history make the person?’ but in Nina’s case it was both.” I can’t think of a better sentence to describe Liz Garbus’ incredible documentary about the legendary Nina Simone. Miss Simone’s whirlwind life, thoughtfully and meticulously presented through candid interviews with close friends (notably her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, and long-time collaborator, Al Shackman) and an impressive collection of archival footage, tells us a story of a woman who made history with her voice and who simultaneously had that voice defined by the very history taking place around her.
Admittedly, I did not know much about Miss Simone before seeing this documentary. Oh, I know all the songs I’m supposed to know but never did I imagine she lived such a beautiful mess of a life. This woman was damn fascinating. Even a die-hard Nina Simone fan would appreciate the archival footage of thought-to-be-long-lost interviews and recordings, and unearthed diary entries, and probably learn a new thing or two to boot.
Before she was Nina Simone, she was Eunice Waymon and she dreamed of becoming the first black female classical pianist. That dream probably didn’t sit well with some, as you can imagine, and she soon found herself playing at bars to make money. And this is what really blew me away: she had never sung in her life until literally being forced to for work. Of course no one could ignore that voice and pretty soon she was gaining attention and momentum, and soon after that she was playing festivals, and soon after that her career really took off.
We’re with Miss Simone through all the highs of her life (her catapulting career, finding her voice with the civil right’s movement, the birth of her daughter) and the lows (the mood swings, the depression, the explosive relationship with her husband) and she’s with us too, singing through all of her elation and fear, punctuating every scene with that mesmerizing voice. Just getting to sit in a theatre and listen to Nina Simone was a treat enough, let alone getting this unprecedented look at her life.
Director Liz Garbus wasn’t overly kind in her telling of Nina Simone’s life, either. Miss Simone was an incredibly complicated woman—moody, outspoken, spirited, dangerous—and to water that down to create a safer Nina Simone would be a disservice to her incredible life. And it is a testament to Garbus’ insane talent as a director that What Happened, Miss Simone? gives us a fairly complete portrait of Nina Simone’s life, while still honouring and respecting her memory. If this film doesn’t make you a Nina Simone fan, nothing will. (And there might be something wrong with you. Just saying.)
Siân Melton is covering Sundance for us live from Park City, Utah. Read about her other work, including her Toronto-based film series The MUFF Society, below.