When she finally appears onstage after seconds of enthusiastic audience applause, she has a glazed look, as if she had just awakened from a mummified state. The expression deepens. Does she know where she is? Does she know who she is? In closeup the head is as solid and massive as a marble statue’s. Teachers at the classical piano school to which she was denied admittance rebuked her as a child for having too full a set of lips, of looking “too black.” Then the incomprehension melts into something like pride. She remembers who she is, acknowledges that she deserve the applause. As it comes in waves — the audience has figured out she has snapped into place — she basks in it. She’s as imperious as a figure in a campaign poster. “Hello,” she says when she sits at the piano. Someone whistles. She smiles. “I haven’t seen you in many years — since 1968. I have decided that I will do no more jazz festivals. That decision has not changed. I will sing for you. I will share with you a few moments, after which I shall graduate to a higher class, I hope.”
Nina Simone had hoped to be the first black female classical pianist. After twenty years of worldwide fame as a song stylist, she never lost this ambition. The unsparing What Happened, Miss Simone documents how the tumult of the sixties and in Simone’s life thwarted her ambition. Swept up by the increasingly radical cast of the civil rights movement, bored by the gentility of the role in which she had cast herself, Simone fraternized with Stokely Carmichael and James Baldwin. Concerts became rallies in which she set homicidal fantasies about white America to spare musical accompaniment. “When they leave a nightclub where I perform,” she said in an interview. “I just want them to be in pieces.” Exhausted, convinced that no one understood her, she fled to Africa. Bipolar disorder triggered her erratic behavior, which included beating the daughter whom she had tried to protect from manager-husband Andy Stroud. Apart from several appearances at the Montreux Jazz Festival, Simone remained a low key, ravaged presence mostly in Europe, adored by a fervent cult. She died in 2003.
Graced with excellent archival footage and its sources’ devotion to honesty, What Happened, Miss Simone traces how an artist schooled in one generation’s verities and modes of behavior discovered they were unsustainable; when she tried to put them back together again in the mid seventies the pieces no longer fit. This is the point at which the documentary, commissioned by Netflix, falters. For skeptics, What Happened, Miss Simone offers no explanations for her purported genius. I’m one of them. To my ears she had idiosyncrasies and a manner. The gentility she scorned was as much a part of her as her own skin, an emollient to an audience that wanted to hear standards not fucked with too much. By clinging to her unrealized dream of renown in the classical mode, Simone’s material never quite lost its mossy stolidness. Sometimes her scratchy contralto and piano chops gave the impression that they were recorded on two discrete tracks, refusing to converge or cohere; the voice wasn’t committed to the material besides lavishing it with the patented melisma and abrupt stops in phrases. But I have favorites: “Here Comes the Sun,”, “I Put a Spell on You,”, of course, the RCA album Nina Simone And Piano, “Mississippi Goddamn.” Her influence is vast and unceasing — John Legend as much as Lauryn Hill. The even more genteel Roberta Flack recast Simone’s folk overtones as R&B, and whaddya know, I prefer Flack.
But the arc of a life emerges in director Liz Garbus’ rendering. It’s clear she should have been called Miss Goddamn when she reached adulthood, with or without the radical politics. Stroud often beat her, once allegedly ramming her against a concrete wall. “He actually thinks I want to be hit,” she wrote in a diary, and to its credit the documentary hints at a sadomasochistic side. “I think they were both nuts,” Lisa Simone says. “My mother was Nina Simone 24/7,” she says earlier in the picture, addressing a born star’s cult of self. Lorraine Hansberry gets her due credit as influence. I would have liked to watch the genesis of her late eighties fame: an English Chanel No. 5 commercial that catapulted “My Baby Just Cares for Me” into the top five. It marked the selling of Nina Simone as paragon of cool, similar to Miles Davis’ own adverts and “Miami Vice” appearance. She did get an honorary degree from the institution that denied her admission as a child, and, in the eyes of an uncomprehending press watching cities burn, leaders die, and presidents resign, became the “rich black bitch” that she’d wanted to be when she started. Talk about realizing career ambitions.