What Happened Miss Simone?


Review by Willard Manus

The question, first asked in a poem by Maya Angelou, is answered memorably in Liz Garbus’ new documentary about the famed singer. Produced by Netflix, the bio-pic paints a startling portrait of the talented and tortured Nina Simone, one of the most unique artists to ever gain prominence in the jazz world.

Simone was born in 1933 in the Jim Crow south. Eunice Waymon (her real name) was a child prodigy whose dream was to become a classical pianist and perform Bach at Carnegie Hall. That dream was shattered when the Curtis School of Music refused for racial reasons to accept her as a student. To make a living, Simone had to take a job playing and warbling in an Atlantic City gay bar. Although she went on to achieve success as a chanteuse–“The High Priestess of Soul,” was one of her labels–Simone never truly got over that first rejection. The resentment burned deep inside her, erupting with a ferocity during the Civil Rights era when she became a Black Power leader and sang such militant anthems as “Mississippi Goddamn” and “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.”

That stance came at great personal cost, as the film shows. Her husband and manager, an ex-New York detective named Andy Stroud, was a politically-conservative African-American who wanted her to play it safe, stick to pop music, where the money was. When Simone refused to compromise her principles, Stroud became abusive, beating her so often and so brutally that she eventually ended up in hospital.

Life wounded Simone in many other ways, especially when heroes and friends like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Stokely Carmichael were murdered, along with their visions of a more just, equitable society. The distraught and disillusioned Simone had a nervous breakdown, the result of which was a decision on her part to abandon the USA.
Taking her young daughter–-who later became one of the producers and key talking-heads of the Netflix documentary-- Simone emigrated to Liberia, where she spent seven happy years, only to inexplicably pull up those African roots and settle in France. She sang and recorded sporadically during those years of exile, but plagued by mental illness (she was bi-polar and depressive), she became more and more reclusive. She died alone in 2003.

Don’t think, though, that WHAT HAPPENED MISS SIMONE? is all sturm and drang. There’s a lot of bubbly, joyous footage of Simone in her prime, when she was hailed for her fiercely individual and heart-stopping renditions of such songs as “I Loves You Porgy” and “My Baby Just Cares For Me.” The documentary also sheds new light on the singer via little-known audio tapes, home movies and back-stage footage, plus interviews with the likes of Stanley Crouch, George Wein–-and even the wife-beating Andy Stroud.
This deeply probing, scrupulously honest, well-made film pays worthy tribute to the jazz titan known as Nina Simone.