On February 21, 1933, Eunice Kathleen Waymon, was born in Tryon, North Carolina. The daughter of a poor preacher, she started singing in her church’s choir as a child. 70 years later she died, one of the most talented and provocative entertainers of all time, but with a different name entirely. It was Nina Simone.
Today, the much-anticipated documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? debuts on Netflix, the first in a string of upcoming films focused on the life of the late songstress, namely Cynthia Mort’s biopic Nina and the documentary The Amazing Nina Simone. Directed by the Academy Award-nominated documentarian Liz Garbus (Bobby Fischer Against the World; Love, Marilyn), who is known for finding subjects that mix greatness with despondency, What Happened, Miss Simone? charts Simone’s rise to stardom in the ’50s and ’60s and later her fall to a reclusive life in France. It utilizes never-before-heard tapes, rare archival footage, and interviews with Simone’s close friends and family, including her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly.
Though Simone is remembered by historians for many things — her electric stage persona, political contributions to the Civil Rights movement, and her struggle with bipolar disorder — she is most widely survived by her music, which is ambitious with promise and experimental in form, colorfully blending elements of gospel, jazz and soul, among other genres. Perhaps the only motif in her vast back catalogue is that familiar raspy tenor. Her most notable hits were “Mississippi Goddam”, “Ain’t Got No, I Got Life”, and covers of “I Loves You, Porgy,”, “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” and “Feeling Good”.
The trailer for What Happened, Miss Simone? opens with the artist onstage at the 1976 Montreux Jazz Festival. “I think the only way to tell you who I am is to sing you a song,” she says with a soft tremble in her voice. But as the film makes evident, Simone’s music was only a fraction of her dynamic, ever-fascinating personality. The question was never whether Liz Garbus could paint a compelling portrait of the late artist. Nina Simone had already done the work for her.