Racism, sexism, domestic violence and mental illness waylaid musical legend Nina Simone and stopped her from becoming as successful as she should’ve been. What is even more amazing is that she accomplished all that she did in spite of such obstacles.
Simone’s incomparable genius, trailblazing achievements and heartbreaking disappointments are all explored in the insightful and riveting new documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? Liz Garbus (Love, Marilyn and Girlhood) directed and produced the film, which debuts today on Netflix and includes rare footage of some of Simone’s most powerful performances and interviews. What Happened, Miss Simone? also features candid commentary from her daughter Lisa Simone Kelly as well as civil rights activist and comedian Dick Gregory, cultural critic Stanley Crouch and ambassador Attallah Shabazz.
Best of all, the documentary will give Simone’s fans a greater appreciation of her music and will likely inspire a whole new fanbase. Here are seven reasons you have to watch What Happened, Miss Simone?
Her brilliance: Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, N.C. in 1933, Nina Simone was a child prodigy who started playing the piano at the age of 2 1/2 and became the organist at the family church where her mother preached. Little Eunice was so talented that her mom’s white female employer paid for Eunice to take classical piano lessons from a woman named Muriel Mazzanovich. Although Eunice mastered Bach, attended Juilliard and dreamed of becoming the first renowned black woman classical pianist, she was denied admission into the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia because she was black. She had to start performing at a dive bar in Atlantic City to support her family and further her musical education. While performing in nightclubs, she changed her stage name to Nina Simone to keep her work a secret from her mother. To help convey this part of Simone’s life, Garbus deftly uses photos, archival interviews, documents and even minor reenactments.
Her music: Nina was more interested in playing the piano than singing but when a nightclub owner she worked for insisted she sing, her signature contralto changed the game and sealed her fate. Although jazz and pop standards such as “My Baby Just Cares For Me” and “I Loves You Porgy” garnered her commercial success, it was Simone’s classical piano leanings and skills that made each song her own. “Her voice was totally different from anybody else,” says George Wein, a promoter and the founder of the Newport Jazz festival, in the film. “It was a woman’s voice but it had the depths of a baritone.”
Her relationships: Simone experienced a great deal of isolation as a child because she was honing her craft for hours on end. As an adult, she was married twice but What Happened, Miss Simone? overlooks her impulsively brief marriage to white beatnik Don Ross in 1958 and focuses instead on her marriage to Andrew Stroud (1961-70). Handsome, charismatic and imposing, Stroud was a police lieutenant who gave up his career to manage Simone. The couple had a daughter named Lisa and lived lavishly in a spacious house in Mount Vernon, New York. Stroud helped Simone realize her dream of performing at Carnegie Hall in 1963. But the marriage was troubled. Stroud was physically abusive and in the film, nonchalantly admits to hitting the singer. “I think they were both nuts,” Lisa Simone Kelly says. “She stayed with him. She had this love affair with fire.” After Simone divorced Stroud, she became the violent one and physically abused her daughter on several occasions. The two became close later in life. Thankfully, not all of Simone’s relationships were dysfunctional. Close friends included her neighbor Betty Shabazz, author and playwright Lorraine Hansberry and poet Langston Hughes.
Her mental illness: The line between genius and insanity is thin and sadly, Simone’s musical brilliance and manic depression were congruent. “When she was performing, she was brilliant,” Simone’s daughter says. “She was loved. But when the show ended, everyone else went home. She was alone and she was still fighting. She was fighting her own demons full of anger and rage. She couldn’t live with herself and everything fell apart.” In one segment, one of Simone’s journal entries reveals that she had to take sleeping pills because the music in her head wouldn’t stop. Her ex-husband Stroud, meanwhile, recounts a story of Simone having a mental breakdown before a performance and putting shoe polish in her hair. Later in her life, when Simone lived as an expatriate in Europe, she lived like a pauper, shot a neighbor boy with an air gun and had a number of run ins with the police and mental institutions until she was properly diagnosed and medicated. She also had a few altercations with fans. At the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1976 she stopped singing her cover of Janis Ian’s “Stars” to tell a woman to sit down. You might also notice the sadness in her eyes and voice:
Her activism: The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s gave Simone purpose and a stronger sense of social responsibility. When white supremacists assassinated Medgar Evers and later four little girls at a church in Birmingham, Ala., both in 1963, Simone turned to music to express her anger and wrote and released “Mississippi Goddam” a year later. White Southern radio stations banned the song and broke the records before sending them back to Simone’s label but she sang “Mississippi Goddam” anyway. One of her strongest and most celebrated performances of the song took place at the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery March and is shown in the film. Her song “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” was written in honor of Lansberry and also became an anthem. Simone’s performance of the latter on Sesame Street included a cameo from her daughter Lisa.
Her beauty: There were too many times in Simone’s life when she was told her skin was too dark and her nose was too broad. But thanks to the black power movement and the natural hair push of the 1960s and 70s, Simone embraced her features and beauty with an Afro, braids, African garb, head wraps and crowns. The outfit from her 1966 The Merv Griffin Show performance will seriously have you hitting up the fabric store and wearing a dangerous amount of black eyeliner. As a side note, you can’t help but notice how much actresses Danai Gurira and Adepero Oduye resemble Simone – so beautiful and regal. Check it out:
Her words: If you’ve ever seen Garbus’ film Love, Marilyn, then you know the filmmaker has a knack for letting her subjects speak through letters and journal entries. Thankfully, this is a technique Garbus uses perfectly in What Happened, Miss Simone? In one entry, Simone writes: “Inside I’m screaming, ‘Someone help me’ but the sound isn’t audible – like screaming without a voice.” Such entries give new meaning to Simone’s lyrics and footage such as this spellbinding interview featured in the 1970 television special, Nina: A Historical Perspective.
What Happened, Miss Simone? premieres on Netflix today.