Review: ‘What Happened, Miss Simone?’ usually sings when Nina Simone sings

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Liz Garbus‘ “What Happened, Miss Simone?” starts with footage of Nina Simone holding a theatre during a 1976 Montreaux Jazz Festival. It was a opening that concurrently represented a quip from self-imposed outcast for a iconic chanteuse, though also has been used as an instance of a mercurial, haphazard and spasmodic weird work that characterized a center of Simone’s career. 

Simone stands in front of her piano and takes a enlarged bow. She stares into a assembly and clearly off into space. There’s roughly no proceed to review  her. Is she embracing a applause? Is she alienated in a spotlight? Is this her dream? Is it her nightmare? 

It’s a ideal preface to a film’s title, that comes from a 1970 Redbook square by Maya Angelou.

That puzzling opening and a interrogative pretension lead, rather disappointingly, into a rather required cradle-to-the-grave documentary.

But even if there’s a clarity that a lady as uncontainable as Nina Simone deserved a documentary reduction fervent to enclose her in easy-to-understand terms, “What Happened, Miss Simone?” stays enchanting by trait of a resources of archival and unison footage Garbus has assembled.

One of a Opening Night films during this year’s Sundance Film Festival, “What Happened, Miss Simone?” is screening out-of-competition here and will premiere on Netflix this spring.

[More after a break…]

The many shadings of Nina Simone’s career and life could have done for 5 or 10 firmly focused documentaries.

There’s a North Carolina-born piano expert forced to turn one of a good jazz/blues vocalists of all-time since her competition prevented her from study a exemplary strain she loved.

There’s a strike recording artist who incited her attentions to a Civil Rights Movement after a church bombing in Birmingham.

There’s a increasingly belligerent domestic romantic who stopped advocating non-violence as her movement’s leaders were killed, jeopardizing her blurb fortunes. 

There’s a ex-pat who fled to Liberia and gave adult strain (and gave adult profitable her taxes).

And afterwards there’s a artist who returned from that exile, battled mental illness and breast cancer, published a successful journal and had her cover of “My Baby Just Cares for Me” used in a Chanel No.5 redolence ad.

And nothing of that is removing into a some-more personal sides of Simone’s life, including her uneasy matrimony and attribute with her daughter Lisa.

Telling all of those stories in 100 mins is a flattering elementary recipe for short-changing some aspects, over-relying on uncomplicated causality or, as was mostly a box in “What Happened, Miss Simone?”, both. 

The speed, for example, with that a documentary nods during Simon’s manic-depression/bi-polarity before charity a articulate conduct suggesting that her genuine problem was being a clever lady during time when clever women were melancholy is baffling. It’s roughly like Garbus is fearful that if she attributes too most of Simone’s struggles to mental illness, we’ll somehow honour her less, or during slightest honour a abrasive problems of her position less. 

And Simone’s ties to a Civil Rights Movement benefit additional energy due to vicinity to “Selma” and to new disturbance in Ferguson and New York City, though that additional banking creates adult for a lot of really lax sketching, like a cross-cutting of radically batch polite rights footage with a live opening of “Backlash Blues.” Personally, we could have watched a whole film about Simone’s place among a ’60s black intelligentsia, from Langston Hughes to Lorraine Hansberry to gatherings with Malcolm X’s family, though we get moments of that and afterwards it’s on to a subsequent thing.

Garbus’ executive constructional gambit is revelation as most of a story as probable in Simone’s possess words, culled from interviews, some never-before-heard. It’s a good thought and, during times, there’s a acquire honesty from a approach, though when it’s only Simone narrating a tide of events from her life, it isn’t appreciably improved than regulating a third-party narrator. And while Simone gave many interviews during and about a initial chapters of her life, fundamentally from Liberia on has to be entrusted to friends and desired ones and, as a result, feels most reduction illuminating. 

What Garbus does well, and what should assistance “What Happened, Miss Simone?” have a prolonged lifespan, is respect Nina Simone as an exquisite performer.

Musical biopics like this mostly burst from opening dash to opening snippet, never vouchsafing we luxuriate in a full song. 

Garbus frequency starts a strain though finishing it. Sometimes articulate heads or Simone herself speak over a opening a bit, though a interruptions customarily supplement appreciated explanation to a songs though upstaging. Full songs from early in her career let experts parse both a tinge and tension that make Simone so unique. You can lane Simone’s augmenting comfort as a thespian by performances during a 1960 Newport Jazz Festival and, theme of sold throng amusement, on “Playboy’s Penthouse,” introduced by a immature Hugh Hefner. It’s one thing to have people plead or plead Simone’s domestic awakening, though it’s most improved when we overpass between several performances of a high “Mississippi Goddam,” with Dick Gregory admiring a bravery of a sentiment. 

The firmness of a performances are even respected when it becomes a plea to see Simone’s genius. There’s a awkwardness of that 1976 Montreaux performance, that she interrupts to reprimand an assembly member for station up. There’s a after opening in that it has to be forked out that she’s somehow singing one strain and personification another on a piano.

When Garbus lets Simone uncover us because she’s special “What Happened, Miss Simone?” is successful and vital. The songs contend and illustrate so most that a easy sequential beats turn a surplus imposition. In a recitation of life events, “What Happened, Miss Simone?” feels like a list of Wikipedia headings. In a performances, we hear and feel nuances that answer Maya Angelou’s question.

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