The new documentary "What Happened, Nina Simone?", which premiered at Sundance Thursday night, makes a case that the late singer Nina Simone was a musical genius.
After seeing the film I profoundly agree.
That voice! It seemed to come directly from her soul. Or perhaps it's more accurate to say it came from the collective soul of humankind, so deeply did it communicate the experience of pain, delicious joy, loneliness, heartbreak, rage.
The film directed by Liz Garbus reveals Simone never intended to become a singer. Born
Eunice Waymon in North Carolina in 1933, she began studying piano at age four. She aspired to be a classical pianist, but in that era of overt racism the path to the concert stage was filled with obstacles.
Needing to support her family she took jobs playing piano in nightclubs. One club owner told her if she wanted to keep performing there she had to sing, and so began as astonishing vocal career.
The movie traces her difficult journey through the music business, and her marriage to a man who successfully promoted her career but who beat her brutally.
But mere biographical details cannot explain the infinite emotional power of her voice, any more than one could explain, for instance, where Stephen Hawking gets his ideas.
Her music could liberate-- both an audience and her own wounded psyche. But ultimately mental illness overtook her. One is left to wonder if the injuries of a racist society and abuse from her husband pushed her inexorably towards madness.
Her important role in the Civil Rights Movement is explored in fascinating detail. She grew more militant as the 60s wore on, and one musician friend recalls how she once charged up to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and forcefully told him, "I am definitely NOT non-violent!"
Netflix will release the film. It needs a lot of audio smoothing-- at the Sundance screening it felt like many sound bites in the film were bunched too tightly together and with varying audio levels.
And I would quibble with the framing of interviewees-- they're plunked down in the middle of the frame, which gives the visuals a leaden feel.
But those are minor issues in a film that can be savored for the music, but--more importantly-- speaks directly to our times. In her impassioned defense of Civil Rights, one hears a trumpet call to address all the work left unfinished.
Nina Simone paid an immense price to reach the emotional depths demanded by her artistry. For those moved by her voice it's fitting to do more than just listen-- but to embrace the cause of humanity that echoed through her songs.
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.