Returning to the stage at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1976, Nina Simone prefaced her performance with, “I think the only way to tell you who I am these days is to sing a song.”
By Colleen Kelsey
Born Eunice Waymon in rural North Carolina in 1933, Simone trained as a classical pianist as a child. Earning the moniker “The High Priestess of Soul” for her powerful, indelible voice, she emerged out of the ’60s as a jazz icon, who abandoned a more commercial career route to create music as an activist and agent of the Civil Rights Movement.
Her transfixing set at Montreux opens Netflix’s original documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?, directed by Liz Garbus, the Oscar-nominated filmmaker behind The Farm: Angola USA, Bobby Fischer Against the World, and Love, Marilyn.
Garbus constructs a fully-realized portrait of Simone’s biography through her own voice, using 30 years’ worth of recently found audio tapes, diaries, and letters, as well as archival concert footage and interviews with those closest to her, including her daughter Lisa Simone Kelly.
The film traces Simone’s experience growing up a musical prodigy facing racism in the Jim Crow-era South; her early success and volatile relationship with her husband and manager, Andrew Stroud; her late-in-life bipolar diagnosis; her friendships with James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, and the Shabazz family; and her alignment with the Black Power movement. What emerges is a striking account of an artist besieged by her own rage, striving for freedom in society, her marriage, and her music.