What Happened, Miss Simone? – Film Review

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George Swiers – Reporter


Any fan of the late African-American jazz singer Nina Simone will know of the controversy surrounding the soon to be released biopic titled Nina. To (quite heavily) summarise, the controversy is born of two things. Firstly, Nina’s portrayal by Latin-American actress Zoe Saldana in heavy makeup and prosthetics, rather than a naturally black actress. The second is the absence of consent from, or consultation with, the estate of Nina Simone or her contemporaries. This news left fans worried that the first Nina Simone film would be a far-flung fiction as well as an insult to the memory of Simone herself.

As a reaction to this director Liz Garbus alongside Nina Simone’s daughter Lisa, as executive producer, set about creating What Happened, Miss Simone? a film aiming to show a more candid depiction of Nina.

So who could possibly fill the role of this jazz legend, turned civil rights activist, and please her die-hard fans?

One person. Nina Simone.

The film is a documentary which follows Nina’s life in an approximate order from her beginnings when she aspired to be the first black classical pianist, to the necessity of becoming a jazz singer, and then later how she incorporated civil rights activism into her music.

One could be forgiven for thinking a risk of such close family involvement in the film’s production might result in a sugar-coated account of the truth, but such a thought would in this case be unequivocally wrong. Throughout the film Lisa’s testimonies are consistently forthright, heartfelt, and shameless.

‘My mother was Nina Simone 24/7… and that’s where it became a problem.’

Upon watching her testimonies I was left with the impression Nina’s daughter had at first struggled to come to terms with why her mother was the way she was.

What Happened, Miss Simone? encompasses interviews with people who knew and grew up with her, as well as a spattering of live performances which I found to be beautifully illustrative of whatever aspect of her life was being represented. The selection, composition, and editing of the clips was a real credit to Garbus as a documentary film director, and to Lisa Simone as a loving and honest daughter.

One of the most moving aspects of the film were the extracts from letters written by Nina herself. They show a much sadder side of her existence, things she could never share on a television or radio interview. These letters offer a previously unexplored insight into her inner turmoil caused by the then-undiagnosed manic depression.

I’d easily give the film 9/10 though I appreciate that at face value it does have a rather niche audience especially within the UK. This is probably the reason it was screened only at film festivals and then went straight to Netflix.

The film is certainly worth a watch not only for fans of Nina Simone but for anyone interested in black civil rights in the USA or in the jazz scene. Even if you’ve never heard of Nina Simone the likelihood is that you’ll know several of her songs (Feeling Good, Ain’t Got No), and if you enjoyed any of them I’d recommend this film for a sense of context as to what compelled her to perform them.

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