In "What Happened, Miss Simone?" Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Liz Garbus delves deeply intro the troubled star behind "Mississippi Goddam" and "I Put a Spell on You."
Is Is it possible to be widely considered brilliant, yet still be under-appreciated? Such is arguably the case with Nina Simone, a singer of worldwide renown but probably not among the names that come to mind when thinking of the greatest women singers of the 20th century (Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Judy Garland and even Aretha Franklin would rank ahead of her on most top five lists).
I have to live with Nina and that is difficult.
But the new documentary "What Happened, Miss Simone?", directed by Liz Garbus, paints a picture that may convince many that Simone was a musical genius and a vastly underrated talent. The film premieres on Netflix June 26 after making its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January.
Like too many great African-American artists, Simone triumphed early in her career only to disintegrate later in life (a fate shared by Paul Robeson, Richard Pryor, Dorothy Dandridge, Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston, to name a few). Just how much responsibility she bears for her own downfall, versus the racism of the society from which she sprang, is a question the viewer can decide.
Most people are probably unaware that Simone trained as a classical pianist and had no intention of becoming a singer. She came to that career by necessity after her she was blocked from attending music school because of her race. That's just one of the many things one learns from this documentary which is compelling for so many reasons, not the least of which is the opportunity to bask in the richness of Simone's voice.
Simone died in 2003 after a long decline that saw her battle what was eventually diagnosed as bipolar disorder. Keep an eye on nonfictionfilm.com for my upcoming interview with Liz Garbus.