As a fan of documentaries, I’m glad that the streaming giant Netflix continues to develop interesting projects about subjects big and small. There was 2014’s The Battered Bastards of Baseball, a look at the fascinating Bing Russell and his ragtag team of misfits. Then there was this year’s Rashida Jones produced Hot Girls Wanted, which offered an oft neglected perspective into the world of amateur porn. Now Netflix has done it once again with What Happened, Miss Simone?, a brilliant look at the complicated life of pioneering musician and Civil Rights activist Nina Simone that could be another Best Documentary contender for Netflix at the Oscars next year.
Oscar Nominee Liz Garbus (The Farm: Angola, USA) compiles Simone’s life with archival footage including some that’s never been seen, live performances of some of her best songs, and interviews including the most important and revelatory from her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly. The bulk of the film focuses on her rise to prominence in the early sixties escalating to the explosive peak of the Civil Rights movement in 1968 with the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., a key factor that played n Simone’s exile to Liberia and her long tenure in Europe.
Garbus’ film can be best summed up by Simone’s own description of her voice in the film: “Sometimes I sound like gravel and sometimes I sound like coffee and cream.” With this Simone has perfectly encapsulated her life and the film – a nitty-gritty look at Simone’s tumultuous life dealing with domestic abuse, racism in America, and her bipolar disorder identified in her latter years; but Simone is also dark, rich, sultry, and saccharine. Liz Garbus portrays Nina Simone with complete transparency, never allowing the glamor of fame and idolatry to conceal or gloss over the life of the enigmatic and troubled Simone; with moments of revelation from Simone’s daughter that are as honest as they are brutal to take.
What Happened, Miss Simone? is a powerful documentary that attempts to answer its own title. Throughout its too-short running time Simone spills all from journal entries to interviews and recollections by those who knew her best. The film is tragic, humane, but also celebratory of the person: from Simone’s passionate disgust with the treatments of blacks in America, but also on her art and talents. Simone was an incredible artist who innovated in blending the sophistication of classical music, the energy of jazz, and the spirit of the blues – a perfect synthesis of the differing elements from this doc that come together in such a riveting way.