While you might want to catch the penultimate night of the Spokane International Film Festival, you can always put the Oscar-nominated documentary feature "What Happened, Miss Simone" on your Netflix queue. To catch your interest, I reviewed the film for Spokane Public Radio. Following is a transcription of my review:
While the name Nina Simone may sound familiar, it’s doubtful that anyone other than a few die-hard fans of Simone’s singular blend of jazz, blues and soul could name a single tune performed by the late singer-songwriter.
That may change as Liz Garbus’ Oscar-nominated documentary feature “What Happened, Miss Simone” receives more attention. And it may occur even if the film doesn’t beat out the other four Academy Award documentary contenders. It is, after all, available to anyone who subscribes to Netflix.
If this happens, it would bring a bit of justice back to the world – the kind of justice that, for a variety of reasons, was denied to Simone during her lifetime.
Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon, the sixth offspring of a North Carolina handyman, the woman who would take the stage name Nina Simone was a child prodigy. She began playing the piano at age 3, and her early interest – after learning to accompany her local church services – was in becoming a classical pianist.
That path changed when, after being turned down by a prestigious musical conservatory, she ended up playing piano for $90 a week in an Atlantic City nightclub. Required also to sing, which she had never done, Simone – who adopted the pseudonym so that her mother would not know she was performing “the Devil’s music” – gradually developed the unique style that would lead to her one day being dubbed the “High Priestess of Soul.”
By the late 1950s, and into the mid-’60s, Simone would achieve popularity both through her recordings – which included her Billboard Chart-topping version of the Gershwin tune “I Love You, Porgy” – and appearances on stage and on television. By then, Simone was showing the strain caused both by the pressures of her busy career and by the abusive relationship she had with her second husband, a former New York police detective – abuse that the artist’s own daughter, one of the documentary’s producers, confirms.
Simone’s popularity waned, even as she was personally energized in the late ’60s by the civil rights movement. Her political stance led her to create some powerful music, but it stalled her appeal to a wider audience. By 1970, exhausted and perhaps even then showing signs of what would later be diagnosed as bipolar disorder, Simone left the U.S., her marriage and, for a time, her career. She lived abroad for much of the next two decades, for a time in Liberia, before finally settling in France where she resumed performing. Simone died, following a bout with breast cancer, in 2003.
Garbus portrays much of this through an effective use of stock footage and by including selections from Simone’s personal diary. And though critic Tanya Steele for one has criticized Garbus for focusing on Simone’s emotional problems, instead of keying solely on the genius that made her music unique, “What Happened, Miss Simone” does serve a necessary purpose. Much as “Amy,” Asif Kapadia’s Oscar-nominated documentary does for Amy Winehouse, it ensures that Simone’s legacy, both as a woman and an artist, won’t be soon forgotten.