The most important thing about a good documentary is the subject matter. If you are making a movie about the life and career of a singer, it helps if that singer has something special that makes an audience want to know more. Nina Simone is certainly one of those artists. She made more than 40 albums, starting in 1958. In the late 60s, her albums regularly placed just under the top ten black albums. She had two singles in the R&B top ten. She was a classically-trained pianist. She introduced many rock standards, such as “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” (written for her). Her compositions included “Mississippi Goddam” and “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black”. Her vocals combined jazz and blues and pop in a unique way, such that you always recognized Nina Simone’s voice.
She also led an eventful life, including her serious involvement in the 60s civil rights movement. She lived all over the world, mostly after leaving the United States in frustration with life there: Barbados, Liberia, Switzerland, the Netherlands, France. And she had the kind of volatile personality that would have been ripe for the social media that thankfully wasn’t there for most of her life.
What Happened, Miss Simone? details all of these things, but the presentation is straightforward, even old-fashioned. There is nothing in that presentation to match the revolutionary nature of much of Simone’s art. Nina Simone’s life is begging for a less-ordinary movie than What Happened, Miss Simone? Also, Simone’s daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, is an executive producer, who appears frequently in interview segments. It’s not that the movie plays as an “authorized” biography, but you wish there was more outside representation.
Having said all of that, What Happened, Miss Simone? shines in its concert footage. During those performances, the decision of the film makers to stay out of the way is clearly the proper move. Simone’s singing and piano playing, along with old interviews she gave, and excerpts from Simone’s diaries, speak for themselves. And Simone is such a titanic figure, she bulldozes over most of my criticisms.
Nina Simone probably deserves a more complicated bio-documentary than What Happened, Miss Simone? But in the meantime, this isn’t a bad way to start. 7/10.
(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)