What Happened, Miss Simone?, which premieres on Netflix this Friday, is a masterpiece. Directed by Oscar-nominated documentarian Liz Garbus, whose storytelling skills are uniquely sensitive to the complicated tales of women and men grappling with fame and internal demons, it presents Nina Simone unlike we’ve ever seen her. And perhaps more than ever, Nina Simone is someone we need to see.
Compiled comprehensively from an unseen treasure trove of Simone’s diaries, interviews, and performances, the documentary is actually narrated by Simone, with the occasional drop in from those close to her, including her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, and her ex-husband, Andrew Stroud, to fill in the gaps. As such, it’s intensely personal, told mostly from her perspective—but those who know her tell it like it is, including Kelly, who speaks as lovingly about her mother’s art as frankly as her abuse. Through it all, Simone remains a hurricane of genius, talent, tumult, passion, stridency and political dedication and fierce love for black people in the darkest hours of the Civil Rights Movement, when black people weren’t feeling the love. She was a beacon and fucked up and a revolutionary and an alcoholic and a ceiling-breaker, and the best way to exemplify her full, faceted humanity is to nakedly show it all—which What Happened, Miss Simone? certainly does.
Liz Garbus is suited for a task so massive. Her documentaries play out like the best kinds of narrative non-fiction, whether in her 2003 debut Girlhood—about young women inmates caught up in the prison system—or other, ever-intertwined topics like social justice, the global war on terror, the lives of the working class, the First Amendment. She has brilliantly profiled Bobby Fischer and Marilyn Monroe, collaborated with Rosie Perez, and made pictures about the FDNY and even Diane Schuler, the mysterious woman who drove the wrong way down the Taconic Parkway and killed eight.
In early June, Liz Garbus and I sat on a park bench near West 4th and spoke about getting to the bottom of what really happened to Miss Simone.
What Happened Miss Simone is really remarkable in its intimacy. How did you initially access all these archives?
I’d always been a fan of Nina Simone’s music; I got a call from [producers] Radical Media one day and said hey, we’re thinking about putting together a documentary on Nina Simone, would you be interested? I sort of fell off my chair, because I’d been such a big fan and of course I think viscerally felt there had to be a good story there. But you know, there can be really amazing artists but if they have a kind of quiet life, what’s the film? But of course, once I started to peel back the layers a little bit, I realized that Nina Simone was not one of those people who led a quiet life. There was an extraordinary story, not just because of her activism as a political figure but in terms of her personal life and the struggles she went through in her life.
But then very early on, I felt like, I didn’t know Nina Simone, I was coming in from the outside. This was a person who many fans felt, and many people who were close to her felt, had been appropriated and quite misunderstood. So for me, I wanted to get grounded in Nina herself. How could I do that, but search for every bit of remnants that she’d left behind? So we started this worldwide search where we recovered dozens of hours of archival tapes of Nina telling her story, letters, of course of performances and interviews that were shown in the film so that was where we started. The archival came before any shooting.
What about the letters and diaries in the film—were those archived as well?
Most of them were in boxes that her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, had taken from her home in France after her death. They had never been organized before, so we were kind of going through them for the first time. There was a lot. Other stuff came from other sources; some of them had been published before but everything we got from Lisa had never been archived or processed or transcribed before we started looking at it.
I’m interested in the act of culling those archives; the movie has a very definitive arc.
When I saw Nina’s concert at Montreaux in 1976, which we open up the film with, she says, “You don’t understand me, you don’t know what I mean when I say I’m tired, and this is my last jazz concert and I’m graduating to a higher plane.” It’s such an intriguing opening statement to make at a concert with your fans. And for me, that sort of seemed to pose the question: who is this woman? What does she mean by “I’m tired”?
The film is there to sort of unpack that question. Of course the title of the film comes from the Maya Angelou essay about Nina Simone, where Dr. Angelou’s asking the same questions—what happened, Miss Simone? You were this sort of omnipresent force of the ‘60s leading us and now you’re gone. What happened?
Of course the answer is, so many different things happened. Psychological, political, musical. So the film is an effort to intertwine those threads and unpack that question. You start there and weave your way through it.
What was it like with interviews with her daughter and ex-husband, Andy Stroud? Particularly her tumultuous ex-husband, who was the source of much physical and emotional abuse for Nina, who then turned around and abused their daughter. But there wasn’t a judgment call per se, you just presented the evidence and let the viewer do the judging.
[The interview with Stroud] comes from a project that was before my time, where Lisa and her father were gonna get together and make a documentary about their lives and about Nina, who was already gone.
As you can imagine, there was a lot of mixed emotions going on in that father-daughter relationship, so the project never came to fruition. Turned out, I knew the filmmaker who was helping produce that, and we were about to recover those tapes. It’s the only footage of Andy talking about his career as Nina’s manager and husband.
In terms of the judgment—every coin for Nina has at least two sides, and everything exists in oppositions. I’m sure there’s nobody who doesn’t judge someone who talks about beating up their wife, but then you also have the perspective of someone like her daughter, who says, you know, Nina was like, inviting the bull with the red cape in the kitchen saying, come on, let’s see what we can do. Nina was engaged with Andy with that and you know, she wrote in her diaries, “I love physical violence.” And we know that politically, as she said when she met Dr. Martin Luther King, she said, “I’m not non-violent.” And that was who Nina was. Again, she was a leader of the movement but she also believed in meeting violence with violence.
What about your interviews with Lisa? It seems like she was very interested in presenting Nina as she actually was.
I think so. I think Lisa has gone through a lot as the daughter of Nina Simone and Andy Stroud, and I think she’s done a lot of work history-wise and has come to a place where she wants to embrace and support her mother’s legacy and the enormous gifts she’s given to the world, but also doesn’t feel the need to cover up the craggier facets of that diamond. I think Lisa has come to a very good place and for me, having spent so much time listening to Lisa, that’s kind of where I came from too—an honest portrayal that still gives love to the human being who was able to produce such extraordinary art.
And you know, [Nina provided] such healing for other people. Nina went through so much so other people didn’t have to; she kind of did it and held herself out there like, I’ve been through it all, and you felt that. So there’s no need to whitewash any of it because, in fact, that’s her power. That she’d been to all those dark places that you might have been—and then some.
So Lisa was remarkably honest and brave, and she really turned over the keys to the kingdom with me in terms of getting access to that archive, all those letters and journals, and being so honest and trusting that would I use that material in a way that was sensitive and still honored her mother’s legacy. I have such respect for her.
Recently, you told Tavis Smiley that you now listen to Nina Simone’s music in “three dimensions.” What does that mean, as a fan? How has your relationship to her music changed?
I don’t know exactly what the three dimensions are, but there’s this personal dimension in every phrase that she turns, every way she reinvents a song and turns it on its head. Like when she sings Bob Dylan, “Just Like A Woman”; Dylan’s interpretation of that song can almost be derisive to women, and Nina just kind of like turns it on its head.
So when I listen to it I can bring this whole narrative of what kind of woman Nina is—her radicalism. And her bravery, and also bring the political narrative, and then that very tragic personal narrative of this child growing up in the Jim Crow South who is just kind of like in a glass box as a prodigy from both sides, really. For me, it’s just very, very rich—like a whole movie in every song. And I hope that with our movie, we kind of give that gift to others, so you can then listen to that music and not just enjoy it from an aesthetic and emotional point of view, but also from a very narrative point of view.
As I was watching it and re-hearing songs I love, it is almost like she’s more alive in them now.
That was my journey as a fan and filmmaker, I feel like I know her as well as I know people who aren’t my family members, I listened to her talk for so long. Already listening to Nina felt very personal to people, but now you kind of know why.
She almost died in the giving of herself.
Yeah, and she talks about the quality of her voice once; of course people talk about, well, her voice is so unique. Even when she’s singing sotto voce—when she’s making those really quiet sort of soft, smooth jazz sounds as people might describe it, which she would hate—she says, “Sometimes you have to use everything in you even to make a soft sound, and sometimes if you have to strain to sing, to make a gravelly sound.” So in every note, in the soft and the strident notes, she’s using everything with that kind of range.
All of your films are about complicated subjects, but you seem to gravitate towards strong, complex women’s stories.
Every film, I think, has a constancy of theme, yet the characters are all so different. But yeah, like I said when someone first brought up the idea to the Nina film to me—it’s all about the human drama behind the art. Even Bobby Fischer is a man but he’s a very similar type of person, and Marilyn Monroe as well—they are kind of in a prison of their own fame, and chafe against it. And then of course I’ve made films in prisons with people skirting the edges of lawfulness and unlawfulness, of transgression and obedience. And I think that transgressiveness is in all of us, and there are those of us who walk way further down that line, and those of us who operate more in the grey. So I think my films explore those in the greys.
One of my favorites is There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane.
That was such a fascinating story and it’s one of those that you could never quite get your handle on who Diane was, and what she leaves behind is this mystery. And at the end of the day, it’s about those of us left behind trying to make sense of this mystery.
I think Nina’s a little bit like that too—I had much more access to Nina because she was famous and left behind so many letters and tapes that we could explore, and Diane Schuler wasn’t famous and didn’t have that, but it’s the same kind of question about a person who walks those lines of obedience and transgression, and trying to sort those through.
I’ve watched Aunt Diane so many times because something in me does want to figure out the answer to that which is unknowable—but with Nina, I felt very satisfied by the answers.
It was very satisfying to hear Nina talking about her life, to think about the thwarted dreams of a classical pianist and to understand the narrative from her point of view. To think about that marriage, and the brutality that she suffered in that marriage. To think about the impact the Civil Rights Movement had on her. To hear her say things like, “Maybe I’d be happier if I weren’t politically active, but I have to live with Nina,” and talking about herself in the third person—this figure that she created out of her childhood, to escape the religious upbringing she had. I think we can answer, sort of, what happened to Miss Simone.
And of those who were closest to her–her daughter, her former guitar player, her cousins, her grandson who came out of the woodwork the other day, have felt that they see and recognize her truth in it.
Also, Marilyn Monroe and Nina Simone were similar, in that they were both groundbreaking for their eras—
In feminism. Well, there are those who don’t buy Marilyn Monroe as a feminist… but we can agree that she was breaking ground, whether you like the ground she broke or not. What Nina was doing was extraordinarily radical. Today, we think of our performers screaming at the audiences or flipping them off, whatever they want to do. But when Nina Simone was doing it—a dark-skinned African American woman—that was radical. That could get you killed, no doubt.
Dick Gregory says that in the film—it’s not only that she said “Mississippi Goddam,” it’s the fact that it was a woman singing that song was so revolutionary, and she paved the way for all these artists who are kind of speaking truth to power, calling out the police, calling out the system. Because back then if you were a woman, a black woman, you were not supposed to do that. And then to live with that. You know, people talk about whether she would have still had mental illness if she weren’t so politically involved… and I think it’s a fair question. I think that the pressures of being that person out there, breaking those grounds—she paid a very internal psychic price for that.
When you said that the family was worried about her being so appropriated—what does that appropriation look like?
Well, everybody knows that they were very unhappy about the casting of Zoe Saldaña in this movie about Nina Simone, and so I certainly think that was a reaction to that, and the fact that they want Nina to be out there as Nina, as opposed to someone playing Nina who they judge as not appropriate for that. And I don’t have a position on that, but I think that was certainly an impetus for, okay, let’s have Nina talking about Nina. And then other movies about Nina can coexist with that, as long as we have our reference point.
I also always wonder what she would have thought about the way Kanye West sampled “Blood On The Leaves.”
Well, Nina would have a lot to say about that! Nina did not like rap music, and there were many things about the music industry today that she did not like. Certainly, she felt completely ripped off her entire life by the industry, by record produces, by labels. And her financial legacy bears out the lack of fruits coming back to her. That’s that typical story—that’s been happening since the beginning of recording of black artists.
Absolutely, and I wonder if her being ripped off and exploited was a little added fuel her radicalism, and position within the Civil Rights movement.
Yeah, I think she felt used and abused by the industry. She had white colleagues she loved, but I think the music industry represented a certain side of America that she was unhappy with.
You had Lauryn Hill perform at the Nina screening at the Apollo, and she’s doing Nina’s songs for Nina Revisited.
I loved watching Lauryn. It was wonderful to be in the audience with Lauryn, and I was privy to some of the nervousness before—you know, Would she show up? I knew she’d been recording the night before and she was feeling very hoarse, and how was that gonna play out? It was kind of thrilling, because that was the experience of watching Nina, where you never knew what was going to happen. I had that sort of edge-on-my-seat experience: was Lauryn going to come out? Could she make a note or was she too hoarse? What kind of attitude was she gonna bring with her? And it’s a thrilling kind of performance. Nina gave that to her audiences. It’s like watching a highwire act: which way are they gonna go? It was really fun to see her at that show.
It’s also really compelling because they know they’re in control.
It’s a form of control.
At the beginning of What Happened, Miss Simone, during the performance at Montreux, the way she’s grilling the audience, like she’s challenging them—
At any moment, they could just walk off and stop. It is control, I think that’s exactly right, and it’s a way of exerting power, keeping people on edge around you which, again, gives you power. It’s a form of great theater. And I think certainly in the case of both Lauryn and Nina, it’s coming a thermometer within that’s sort of constantly taking the temperature of everything around you. There’s a very heightened sensitivity. I think that’s part of what makes them so brilliant. And Lauryn did some amazing reinterpretations of Nina’s songs, like the album that’s coming out in July, she’s a really innovative artist and I think she stands on Nina’s shoulders. She’s worthy of the stage of Nina.
It can’t be easy to try to represent her.
It’s daunting, yeah. I think it’s brave and shows her love of Nina, to try to walk on those shoulders. But from early on, she’s been channeling that badass spirit of Nina.
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Image via Peter Rodis/Netflix