What Happened, Miss Simone?

Taking its title from a line of a Maya Angelou poem, Liz Garbus’ colourful documentary about the life of singer and pianist Nina Simone tries to get to the very soul of one of music’s most complicated divas.

As a movie, you can’t really go wrong with archive footage of firebrand Nina bashing out her torchsongs in concerts from Newport, to Carnegie Hall to Montreux and anywhere in between, including Hugh Heffner’s Playboy Penthouse and a dive bar in Paris.

“Sometimes I sound like gravel and sometimes I sound like coffee and cream,” says Nina herself, a powerful, persuasive and wounded presence throughout in a panoply of clips, recounting her life and thoughts on stage, on TV, in crisply frank radio interviews and – most poignantly – in hand-scrawled diary entries.

Garbus, whose previous film Love, Marilyn attempted similar assessment of the ultimate screen legend, builds a steady, focused mosaic portrait of Nina Simone. We get the childhood as Eunice Waymon in segregated North Carolina when the gifted little church pianist had to literally cross the tracks every Saturday having been taken under the wing of white piano teacher who had high ambitions for her prodigy.

The dream of being the first black female classical pianist to play Carnegie Hall never left Eunice, even when she was turned down by the prestigious Curtis Music Institute in Philadelphia at the age of 19. She eventually discovered that her refusal was because she was black. “That was a jolt of racism from which I never recovered,” she says.

It led to her taking a gig in the MidTown jazz bar in Atlantic City and changing her name so her mother wouldn’t discover her playing the devil’s music. Nina was Spanish for little girl and Simone, that came from French actress Simone Signoret. The bar owner threatened to fire her if she didn’t sing, so sing she did. “It was always a necessity – I needed money and I needed to play.” And that’s how it always would be.

The rest of the film charts a path through her first, unlikely hit with I Loves You Porgy to her eventual appearance at Carnegie Hall, one tinged with regret because “she wasn’t there playing Bach.”

Garbus’ portrait darkens around the edges as Simone’s relationship with her husband and manager Andy turns violent and abusive, as depressive episodes set it. Her daughter Lisa Simone Kelly, who also serves as executive producer, gives blunt testimony: “My mother was Nina Simone 24/7, that was the problem. After the show, when the crowd went, she’d be alone, just her and her demons and she fell apart.”

Nina herself describes the pills to took to sleep – “there was music in my head constantly” – and the yellow ones to go on stage, but there was also great wealth and success, including a big house in the countryside of New York.

Perhaps the film’s strongest section is the middle, where black activism took hold of Nina’s soul, sparked by the bombing of the four little girls in Birmingham, Alabama which got her so upset she wrote her anthem Mississippi Goddam. Her amazing version of Langston Hughes’ Strange Fruit followed and finally the glory of Young, Gifted and Black.

Footage of Nina singing Mississippi Goddam at the Selma march in front of Martin Luther King is precious indeed, and her close friendship with Malcolm X and Betty Shabaaz was crucial. But Nina, as one might imagine, never did things half-heartedly. “I was never non-violent,” she glowers in one interview. “I would have had guns, gone down to Alabama and shot them.” There’s one concert when, in a call and response session, she exhorts her audience to “:smash white things” and “be ready to kill”.

Nina destroyed her own commercial potential, preventing her becoming a Diana Ross or a Gladys Knight, to her husband’s annoyance. But Nina was on her own path and, this is where the film gets interesting – after the assassination of Martin Luther King, she just quits and goes to live in Liberia, Africa. She says she was beyond happy there, but she did disappear.

Despite her comeback gig at Montreux in 1976 when she’d finally gone to live in Switzerland, she was still too depressed to really work and ended up living penniless in Paris, playing a seedy club for pennies. “Nobody could really believe that was on the bill, playing there,” she says. “So nobody came.”

The film is unfortunately thin on the later years when, rehabilitated by friends and anti-depressants, she had a renaissance fuelled by My Baby Just Cares For Me being used on a Chanel ad and becoming a surprise hit, extending her career from the late 80s and into her death, from cancer, in 2003 at the age of 70.

It was in this late period I myself saw her three times, once even standing outside the unlikely venue of the Forum in Kentish Town, backstage, to greet her after she’d rocked the place. I gave her a rather tatty rose, which she kissed and she beamed like golden, Nubian queen.

I saw her at the Royal Festival Hall, too. She was terrible for the first 20 minutes then shuffled off complaining of a cold. Five minutes later, she strode back on and played a stunning set.

The songs are still remarkable, recorded or live, whatever versions she chooses to do. Her long time musical collaborator Al Shipman has a good take on it. “She was capable of metamorphasising a song into her own experience”.

Aside from these performances, there’s a tribute album out shortly, with Lauryn Hill, Mary J Blige, Gregory Porter, Common among the stars doing their versions of Nina classics. Can they get near her? And, watching this film, I wondered how Zoe Saldana could possibly get close to playing Nina in the upcoming biopic?

Her daughter, through obvious pain, recalls that her mother – and maybe she is now resigned to the fact – was genius who was only happy at the piano “where her fingers could fly”. Even then, Nina doesn’t always look it.

The film is subtle and touching. Like a moving greatest hits album, it does nothing revolutionary with the bio-doc genre but goes about its business with grace and calm, which is much-needed when your subject at the centre is a firebrand, a life force, an extraordinary creature. Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood wails Nina Simone – and this treasurable, melancholic film duly obeys the High Priestess’ command.

What Happened, Miss Simone? premieres on Netflix on June 24.

You can hear me in conversation with director Liz Garbus on the Robert Elms show on BBC London 94.9 here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02sqzn9