what happened miss simone

As the documentary opens, we watch Nina Simone take the stage in Switzerland in 1976. After making a curious and prolonged entrance, our heroine the begins to fuss with her mic and babble into it. Long, long minutes go by before she so much as plays a note. When she finally does start playing, we remember why we’ve gathered here…before that though, it’s a surreal thing to witness.

This introduction, centering on a moment later in our subject’s life, drops us into the deep end. If you’re like me and don’t know much about the musician coming in, it’s a harsh first encounter. How did we get here? What are we seeing? Indeed – what happened, Miss Simone?

Liz Garbus’ documentary is a deeply personal and thorough look at the life and work of Nina Simone. Through interviews, photographs, footage, and Simone’s own conversations, we are treated to the unlikely rise, dark fall, and unexpected re-emergence of one woman’s tremendous talent. We see her as a woman who, early on in life, just wanted to play, and eventually found herself vocalizing the struggles of an entire civil rights movement.

In trying to explore “what happened?”, the film finds a higher gear. What early on seems like it will be just another rock doc, soon becomes an exploration into how social change affects an artist’s creative output, how domestic abuse can harden a person, and just how much being a voice for change can burn a person out. As we watch her performances become more impassioned, and see how they are cutting closer and closer to the bone, we sense just how much she was leaving on the table. Here was an artist who could have struck it truly rich if she’d kept singing songs like “I Put a Spell on You” or “Mood Indigo”, instead she decided to use her talents to give voice to “Strange Fruit” and “Mississippi Goddamn”.

And so we feel for her. When Nina decides to pack it all up and leave America, we feel that pang of regret that comes with wondering “what if?”.  Then, perhaps the only thing harder than hearing about how she lets everything unravel while she stays in prolonged seclusion in Liberia, is seeing the bumpy, awkward, difficult task of getting back on-stage – that moment where we first come into the film.

WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE? is a celebration, a memorial, a warning, and a call to action. It saddens every one of us to hear Nina Simone express in a 1980’s interview how her protest music is no longer relevant, and to realize how relevant it has once again become. It leaves us missing her that much more, and it leaves us to wonder when those songs might actually become irrelevant…if they ever can.

WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE? plays at Hot Docs 2015 once more at The Regent on Sunday May 3rd – 9:30pm. The film will then make its way to Netflix on June 25th.