What Happened, Miss Simone?

Directed By: Liz Garbus

Netflix has backed this documentary on the life of Nina Simone, the legendary singer. It’s an interesting weekend for celebrities, as Amy opens in limited release and explores the toxic nature of being a celebrity in the public eye. Nina didn’t have the paparazzi or TMZ and you can still feel that she is somehow changed by her fame and her access to influencing how others think.

Nina wanted to be a concert pianist, but grew up in a time where black girls just didn’t go and be concert pianists. She ended up using her piano skills to earn money in a bar, and eventually started singing, and that’s how we got Nina Simone. She got married, but it was a little bit of a destructive relationship. While it isn’t directly said, there’s this general idea that as Nina got older and her celebrity grew, she became more unhinged. Her spotlight grew, and her access to political figures grew with it. She soon was friends with Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr, and other people a lot more educated than her. She felt her need to contribute in the civil rights movement. It was all of these experiences thrown together that broke Nina Simone, slowly, over time. She didn’t have TMZ, but the spotlight definitely broke her.

Testimonials from Nina’s daughter, and those who knew Nina well will show you the transition of Nina from a smart savvy superstar to a woman haunted by the tragedies that happened on her watch. Too often, however, the filmmakers fill in time with extended performances from Nina. We’re watching a Nina Simone documentary, we’re probably already aware of who she is and appreciative of her talents. You can also pick up on that pretty quickly in smaller clips. It feels a little like filler. You shouldn’t feel like you have to make a certain runtime. There’s a good story that has to take a break around her performances. It could have been a stronger documentary about the bipolar person behind the superstar we knew, instead it feels oddly like an introduction to Nina Simone and her music. This is not a Music Appreciation class.


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