Nina Simone was a singular figure in American popular music. Born in 1933 in North Carolina, she aspired to be a classical pianist, but as an African-American, her opportunities were limited. She began performing jazz and she also put her unique stamp on pop songs.
She was also tortured by inner demons and a physically abusive husband. What’s more, her militant attitudes toward civil rights harmed her career and she ended up living her later life largely alone in Africa and France.
That story is captured in “What Happened, Miss Simone?” a documentary by Liz Garbus out today in select theaters and available for streaming on Netflix.
The Frame’s John Horn caught up with Liz Garbus after the movie’s premiere at The Sundance Film Festival in January.
What was the epic find? What was the thing that you said ‘This is something I’ve been looking for and really need.’
“Nina had, over the course of her life, attempted to tell her story and had collaborated -- or had some false starts collaborating -- on writing an autobiography. And through research and talking to people who knew her, I was able to track down some of the people she had approached to be her co-author. One of them was in Australia; One of them was down south. And we were able to find them and after months and months and months of begging, get them to go into their garages and find the micro-cassettes that they sat and talk to her. Some of it ranging from the late-’60s, some of it as late as 1992 of her telling her story in an effort to have her autobiography. So what I basically had was Nina’s life in her own words. There was one particular treasure trove where first we found the guy in Australia, he said maybe it’s in my house in France... Finally I get an email from him saying he went into his garage and he found 40 hours of tape of Nina talking.
What about her diaries?
“Her diaries came through her daughter, who had been storing her stuff. And through the estate of her late husband.”
What does the title of your film mean?
“The title of my film is ‘What Happened, Miss Simone?’ and it’s derived from a 1970 article written by Dr. Maya Angelou. Nina had been such a force in the civil rights movement and then in the late-’60s she left. And Maya Angelou was asking, ‘What happened to this hero?’ Where was she?"
The movie starts with a very specific concert and then flashes back. Why did you choose to start the movie where you started it?
“... She goes to Montreux in 1976 and she walks out on stage and she sort of has this outer body, almost break with herself. My interpretation is that she’s trying to reconcile all the different feelings she’s having at that moment. Of anger, of joy, of hatred, of resentment but also of belonging -- that that really was a place for her... Look, if you don’t really know Nina yet and you see that song, you don’t really know what’s going on. But what I’m offering to you as an audience is a question. What is happening with her right here? And that the film is going to answer: What did happen to Miss Simone?... What happened to her? The Civil Rights Movement happened to her. Racism happened to her. Her husband happened to her. The music business happened to her. Family and the divide between family and career happened to her. All of these things happened to her and I think in that performance you can see those pressures playing on her, but you don’t quite know it yet.”
What do you think Nina’s legacy is, primarily?
“Her legacy is her music. You know, I’ve had so many people come up to me since they’ve seen the film and they’ve said, ‘I’ve always loved Nina’s music and it’s always stirred me in an emotional way, and I never really understood why. I didn’t know how it was operating on me.’ When you can go back and listen to the music and you see the classical influence, you see the influence of jazz, you see the influence of folk music. You see all these influences and then you see the delivering of her soul and the suffering and the passion and the brilliance... My hope is, for the audience, that you put that music on and you put her in your Spotify and you have a whole new 3D experience of that music... She was a feminist, she was badass. Her bar was so high, she was so brave. And I think as artists that’s inspirational.”