I’ll admit it: I’m weird. I actually really look forward to the nominations for best documentary every year. The 2016 class is one of the best I can remember. They’re all sad stories, as documentaries often are, but each offers a compelling look at both the unique personal struggles that people face every day, and the harrowing dangers involved in movements that sweep across nations.
In this post, I review a film about an amazing, unsung titan of music history:
What Happened, Miss Simone?
Chronicling the unlikely rise, tragic fall, and comeback of singer, songwriter, pianist, and activist Nina Simone, this movie takes an unflinching look at a talented woman’s life through old footage, new interviews, and the revealing personal diaries she left behind.
I has happy to see Nina get some love here since pop history has largely forgotten her role in the music scene of the sixties and seventies. She wrote the classic, “Feeling Good”, which is one of the classic jazz/big-band songs and was more recently popularized by Michael Buble’s (capable but watered-down) cover. She influenced everyone from John Lennon to Alicia Keys to Adele. All throughout the movie, I saw shades of Lauryn Hill, and I was reminded that so much of who an artist is comes from those they idolized.
The film does a great job of chronicling her triumphs as a young black, Southern girl who wasn’t very pretty but she did have immense talent. That talent brought her out of her humble beginnings and made her a jazz legend, and the story is told through some interviews with family, but mostly in Nina’s own voice from various archival interviews she did decades ago. Everything is flawlessly edited together to create this sense that Nina’s almost talking to you, personally.
This is a documentary about a musician, so of course there’s a lot of music in it. Jazz isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, so I can’t say that everybody will love the music here. But every song is carefully chosen and timed to fit into the film’s narrative. This isn’t a fluff film about a singer’s greatest hits. This is an honest, holistic look at the life behind the music; a life that is a sad reality for so many artists.
The movie’s strength does not lie in how it portrays Nina’s greatness. The film really works because of how it handles the truth of her weaknesses. She could be a menacing person, both in her performances and in her personal life with her husband and her daughter. We see and hear the people who knew her talk about how challenging she could be, but through Nina’s diary entries we also see that she was very aware of a maelstrom of conflict and emotion going on inside her. Her problems led to a dramatic downturn in what was once a lauded career.
The most controversial aspect of the film is Nina’s relationship with her husband and manager. It doesn’t take long to learn that he was abusive, and the film allows him the opportunity to tell his side of the story through footage of old interviews (which don’t really paint him in any better light). But the film also very clearly states that Nina seemed to be complicit in her abuse. There’s a sense that, in some perverse way, she lived for the conflict; perhaps even needed it. It is a brutally complex story that is woven throughout the middle of the film.
Later in the movie, we get a medical explanation for all those years of sound and fury that put Nina’s family, her managers, and promoters into chaos. But it comes almost as a matter of course. By that point in the film, any viewer can come to their own conclusion that she just…wasn’t quite right.
But her diagnosis (which is revealed through an interview with her daughter), leads into the final act of the movie where we see Nina enjoy a resurgence in her career. And, for the first time, she seems really happy to perform. It’s a peaceful resolution to a film that spent so much time detailing Nina’s rocky, roller coaster life, but it does deliver something close to what you almost never see in a documentary these days: a happy ending.
You can catch What Happened, Miss Simone? for free on Netflix. For a review of another Oscar-nominated documentary about a troubled starlet, check out my review of Amy