What Happened, Miss Simone?

Documentary on the life of a great (and troubled) singer

Sep. 12, 2016
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The title of the award-winning film What Happened, Miss Simone? comes from a question famously asked by Maya Angelou. The author was puzzled over the decline (and at times disappearance) of an African-American performer who embodied Lorraine Hansberry’s phrase “Young, gifted and black.”

As the documentary shows, Nina Simone was a prodigy who overspread the tidy categories that divide music. Although she began at age four playing piano in church, she aspired to become a concert pianist at a time when African Americans were rare in classical music. Claiming she was thwarted by prejudice, she stepped sideways into jazz, bringing fugue and counterpoint with her and singing an array of songs, including tunes more associated with folk festivals than jazz lounges circa 1960. During those years Simone rose into the charts with Gershwin’s “I Loves You Porgy” and made a pair of bewitching recordings, a darkly orchestrated version of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You” and an agonized “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.”

By the mid-‘60s, playing the jazz club circuit seemed irrelevant to her in the face of the civil rights struggle. Simone performed at rallies and became a soul music protest singer, sometimes drawing on her gospel roots. She crossed the line in the music industry and among many fans by becoming an advocate of violence—of carving a black nation out of the U.S. by any means possible.

As revealed in What Happened, Simone suffered from depression and was much abused by her husband-manager, a capable but violent man. He, of course, has his own tales to tell. Their daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, acknowledges that “they both were nuts” but eventually suffered so much at the hands of her mother that opted to live with dad.

What Happened, Miss Simone? is out as a two-disc set with the film on Blu-ray plus a CD with additional musical tracks that serves as a “best-of” career retrospective.

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