In this time of intense racial turmoil, Ava DuVernay and Liz Garbus could not be more propitious with their remarkable films. DuVernay’s “Selma” and more recently Garbus’ documentary on the life and legacy of Nina Simone remind us again that when it comes to civil rights in the country, past is prologue.
DuVernay and “Selma” have received their warranted attention and awards, and Garbus should prepare her acceptance speeches for a work that, in many splendid and insightful ways, answers “What Happened, Miss Simone?”—the title of her documentary.
At the very beginning of this 140-minute tribute to the great singer and activist, there is an epigram from the pen of Maya Angelou that raises the question. It’s posed in a whimsical and rhetorical way, but Garbus is far more direct in her response, using the typical talking heads—none more engaging and startling than Lisa Simone Kelly, Simone’s daughter and executive producer of the film.
But its Garbus’ weave of testimonials, film footage and Simone’s own words that carry the bulk of this compelling cinema. Rarely in documentaries about musicians are we presented lengthy performance excerpts, but there are several here in which we enjoy Simone up close and personal as she delivers her most popular songs. Perhaps the most poignant one occurs toward the end of the film, during a final performance in 1987 at the Montreux Jazz Festival.
Simone is rescued from illness, depression and self-abnegation by friends and associates for the performance, and her rendition of “My Baby Just Cares for Me” is a captivating tour de force that combines her classical background with her blues popularity. A speedy Bach fugue accompanies her vocal that she chooses to emphasize on the words “high tone places.”
From her birth in North Carolina to her last residences in Europe, Garbus tracks Simone’s musical odyssey, one that began when she was 4 (and there are occasional reenactments of a young girl portraying Simone) and the desire to be the first African-American woman pianist to play Carnegie Hall. This dream is accomplished but not with complete satisfaction when she appeared there on the cusp of her fame as a pop artist, not for her recital of Beethoven, Bach and Brahms.
Simone’s involvement in the Civil Rights Movement is probably the best answer to what happened to her. And with each of her songs—“Mississippi Goddam” is a special moment—an episode of the Civil Rights Movement is highlighted. Garbus deftly shows how Simone’s songs are a veritable soundtrack of the movement.
There are several very revealing interviews with her ex-husband Andrew Stroud and with Simone as she ruminates on her career, and when she is asked to define freedom, saying that for her, it meant to have “no fear.”
Simone was indeed a fearless artist who risked her career to advocate for her ideals and to be “a voice for the voiceless.” And what a voice, one that was unmistakably singular; one for the ages.
“What Happened, Miss Simone?” has a weeklong run at the IFC Center in the Village and thereafter will be available on Netflix. No matter the venue, it’s not to be missed.