John Legend is currently enjoying award recognition for “Glory,” his emotional song for the Martin Luther King Jr. biopic Selma.
But 50 years ago, jazz pianist and iconic vocalist Nina Simone paved the way for generations of musicians to come and put her promising career at risk by shifting from stirring standards to politically charged anthems like “To Be Young, Gifted And Black” and “Mississippi Goddam,” the latter of which she performed at the very Selma-Montgomery march depicted in the Oscar-nominated film.
Watching archival footage of Simone’s transformation from unlikely ’60s R&B star to dogged Civil Rights activist is one of many powerful insights in What Happened, Miss Simone?, a documentary on the mercurial singer’s life that helped open the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 22.
Directed by veteran documentarian Liz Garbus (Bobby Fischer Against The World, Love, Marilyn), the film offers a vivid glimpse into Simone’s tortured psyche via rare interviews with key figures like Lisa Simone Kelly, Nina’s daughter and sole child, Al Shackman, Nina’s guitarist and musical director of 42 years, and Andrew Stroud, Simone’s ex-husband, via a never-before-seen interview for a since-shelved 2006 documentary project.
“This is the film I’ve been practicing to make after all these years,” Garbus said prior to the film, after a brief introduction from Sundance founder Robert Redford. One of Garbus’ mantras for Miss Simone, the director added, was to make something “real, honest and true — like her.”
Through the impressively exhaustive work of Garbus’ archival team, newly unearthed diary entries and audio recordings Simone taped for her 1992 autobiography reveal the brutal truth about Simone’s struggle with depression, bipolar disorder, career insecurity, racial identity crisis and abusive marriage to Stroud.
Garbus had dream source material (25.5 hours’ worth of audio alone), and she cuts to the heart of why Simone seemed to have sabotaged her own legacy by taking her pro-black music one step too far at times (“Are you ready to kill, if necessary?” is one of her startling rallying cries in one vintage performance). Simone eventually retreated to the African-American country of Liberia, which she would dub “paradise.”
Her Liberian exile in the early ’70s kept Simone away from her family and out of work for years, prompting even Maya Angelou to pen an essay on the singer for Redbook that inspired the film’s title (“What happened, Miss Simone? Specifically, what happened to your big eyes that quickly veil to hide loneliness?”) It would take Simone nearly a decade to resurface on the concert hall circuit in Switzerland (another country she would later call home) and Paris, where she would play to tiny crowds just to take home $300 a night.
Even though daughter Lisa states at one point that “anger sang an octave out of” her mother’s voice in the ’60s, indelible footage from her last two decades of performances (Simone died of breast cancer in France in 2003) proves that her fiery soul never went away. Not to mention her dynamo piano chops — watching Simone sing her famous cover of “My Baby Just Cares For Me” simultaneously atop an arpeggio-filled classical piece is chill-inducing.
Though Simone is still getting her cultural due (a long-shelved scripted biopic, starring Zoe Saldana, is still in the offing), it was Legend himself who appeared after the film’s premiere to perform a trio of Simone’s best-known songs: “Lilac Wine,” “I Wish I Knew How It Feels To Be Free” and “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.”
“She’s been an inspiration to me for a long time,” Legend told the crowd. “I find myself studying her versions of all kinds of songs, thinking about her wiseness, thinking about her boldness, thinking about her commitment to justice. I’m truly humbled by this opportunity to be here tonight to honor her legacy.”