“I want to shake people up so bad that when they leave a nightclub where I perform, I want them to be to pieces.” That is the late jazz/soul/gospel visionary Nina Simone in one of the many lost recordings that director Liz Garbus and crew recovered for What Happened, Miss Simone? — the first original documentary to be commissioned by Netflix (where it will debut June 26). The clip shows Simone laying out her artistic program in the mid-1960s, halfway through her arc from child piano prodigy in the segregated South to East Coast cabaret-pop star to self-exiled black power artist-provocateur.
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The problem was that her manifesto for disruption also turned inward: The raging did not stop after she finished putting a spell on a crowd in a club or concert hall. The film makes those agonies plain, in her own words and those of close friends and family, including her abusive ex-husband/manager Andrew Stroud and her only child, Broadway actress Lisa Simone Kelly. It is also generously layered with rare, hypnotizing concert footage, photos and scans of startlingly frank pages from letters and diaries.
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The experience is musically ravishing, emotionally harrowing and politically rousing. Reviewing the civil rights movement through Simone’s singular perspective makes events like the Birmingham, Ala., church bombing that spurred her to write “Mississippi Goddam” freshly raw and urgent. What Happened adds vital cohesion to a life story and work that most listeners know only in fragments, including her late-life diagnosis with bipolar disorder, her long and lonely expatriation to Africa and Europe in the ’70s and her career revival in the ’80s.
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What it asks, but can never answer, is how her burdens might have shifted if “the United Snakes,” as Simone called it, had been prepared for such an uncompromising “young, gifted and black” woman of genius — and when, if ever, it will be.
This story originally appeared in the June 27 issue of Billboard.