Nina Simone was a complex character who crossed over into politics, had difficult personal problems, and an incredible music career. The musician left behind an immortal legacy with her unique style and genre defining albums. This Netflix original documentary, released in 2015 from director Liz Garbus, explores the story behind Nina Simone and fascinatingly contextualises her music. Whilst the film is tremendously intriguing, and a wonderful journey through Nina Simone’s back catalogue of hits, What Happened, Miss Simone? does not shy away from the dark side of the singer’s personal life.
Liz Garbus is not afraid to explore mental disorder and abusive relationships, but she also heavily studies Simone’s involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. The film feels like both a biographical documentary and a significant historical piece, delving deeply into black rights and the racially segregated culture during the 60s and 70s. Although the subject matter is difficult and heavy, it is brutally honest and extremely important, as well as (rather worryingly) relevant 50 years on. Simone used music as a platform to comment on racism and gave black people a voice, because she recognised that it was her duty as an artist to reflect the times. In the documentary, you truly understand Simone’s prominent role as an activist, promoters became afraid they would only get a political message from her performance as she was so frank and open with her views.
We are presented Nina Simone’s story through her own voice and often emotionally charged interviews. However, the film is mostly made up of archive footage, interspliced with interviews from Simone’s family and friends. What Happened, Miss Simone? Is a gorgeously crafted documentary showcasing both Nina Simone’s genius and her struggles. There’s some quality live footage throughout this documentary from various festivals and performances, and the music is utilised beautifully with tastefully edited shots. So, even if you are not interested in the political and historical aspect of Nina Simone’s life, this film is worth watching just to see the assortment of fantastic footage which displays Simone’s astonishing talent in full force. What Happened, Miss Simone? is a stark contrast to the usual glamourised documentaries, it’s essential viewing for both fans and historians. The documentary is a candid exploration into the isolation of fame, as well as a respectful acknowledgement of Nina Simone’s impact on both music and American history.
'Nina Simone was a free spirit in an era that didn’t really appreciate a woman’s genius.’
- Attalah Shabbaz (Daughter of Malcolm X)