Nina Simone has always been a figure covered in mystique: a one-of-a-kind voice in music history that seemed so burdened by feeling she could barely keep it in. What Happened, Miss Simone? certainly lifts the veil to a large degree: a film so filled with archive footage it is impossible not to get a three-dimensional view of Miss Simone. Most music documentaries celebrate the good moments in the subject’s career, and while What Happened, Miss Simone? certainly has a couple bright moments, it succeeds in portraying Simone’s deep sadness throughout her career.
Growing up the son of a preacher, Simone received classical piano lessons and aspired to be a concert pianist. Simone never wanted to sing, but was forced to sing at a small club as a way to continue to pay for her piano education. She long regretted having to sing, and even upon first playing Carnegie Hall, said she would rather be there playing Bach than singing standards.
After the Birmingham church bombing, Simone felt she had to contribute and wrote “Mississippi Goddam”, a song that spit so much righteous anger, frankly I have no idea how she got away with it in 1964. The documentary well captures Nina Simone’s conflicted relationship with the Civil Rights movement, even talking about Simone confronting Martin Luther King Jr. and telling him to his face “I’m not non-violent.” There’s some ugly footage of Simone urging South Africans to be willing to take white lives, and plenty of talk of her violent bouts with family members and bandmates. Simone struggled with bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder, causing these violent reactions and deep bouts of depression.
With consistent footage throughout her life, you can truly see the decline in her attitude and her health over the performances and images. The amount of footage of Simone and the quality of the performances and candid moments is both breathtaking and paralyzing. Once she finally receives her bipolar diagnosis, there is a last glimmer of hope at the end, but true sadness remains the theme of Simone’s life. Certainly those blues led to her being able to sing and move millions with her emotion-drenched performances.
What Happened, Miss Simone? surely asks the question of what made Simone so tragic, but the answer remains somewhat elusive. Was it strictly from her mental illness? Was it partly from being a female visionary ahead of her time? Was it the fact she never became the concert pianist she always wanted to be? No matter how many times you see her perform in the film or otherwise, Simone will remain one of music’s true mysteries: a tragic yet absolutely hypnotic performer.