What Happened, Miss Simone? (Liz Garbus, 2015)

What Happened, Miss Simone? is a 2015 documentary about American singer and songwriter Nina Simone. Combining archival footage and interviews with close friends and relatives, the film broadly covers the key periods of her life, building up a picture of her off-stage persona in the process.

Such was the nature of her personality, it is a documentary that was destined to be extremely interesting. Indeed, it is quite easy to accuse it as being a by-the-numbers film: get some footage of her onstage, source a few interviews with her, get the close family on board and let them speak from their point of view and build up a picture of her. That may be the case here, but it doesn’t mean it’s a bad film.

The film was sanctioned by daughter Lisa Simone Kelly, who is also listed as one of the film’s executive producers. This is a wise move. Not withstanding the access to personal diaries this would have undoubtedly provided to Garbus, this is crucial because Lisa is able to provide a unique insight into her mother from a point-of-view nobody else could offer.

There are several other documentaries that cover the same ground, perhaps most notably Nina Simone: The Legend (Frank Lords, 1992), which offer their own viewpoint on her life. What Happened, Miss Simone? stands alone as a film in its own right, though perhaps lacks the detail needed to offer any real insight into any particular point in her life. In particular, her time as a civil rights activist is given around half-an-hour – enough to whet viewers’ appetites but not enough to explore her involvement and impact. Equally, not a single song is allowed to air from start to finish, diminishing the effect of her powerful performances.

Worth a watch, but it serves only as an introduction to the artist as it only really touches the surface.

What Happened, Miss Simone? is available exclusively on Netflix.

[Note] If you’re interested in what she could do at her peak, here’s a majestic performance of her song “Feelings” live at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1976.

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