Netflix, along with the Film Society of Lincoln Center, paid due homage to the legendary High Priestess of Soul, Nina Simone, at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre last night (June 1), screening the evocative documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? followed by a special performance from Ms. Lauryn Hill and Jazmine Sullivan.
Directed by Liz Garbus, the tragic film, releasing to the streaming service on June 26, traced the iconic musician’s life from her early days as a classical pianist and breakthrough success as a blues musician to her transition into a civil rights activist whose burning passion for justice through equality inevitably unraveled her career.
Featuring interviews with her family, friends and musicians close to her, as well as archival performance footage and never-before-seen chats with the late Simone, the doc portrayed an artist whose dedication to music was poisoned by the world around her, most notably by her controlling and abusive husband/manager Andrew Stroud. Even when she was given a second shot at stardom following a downward spiral, her last days were crippled by a struggle with mental illness and breast cancer, which inevitably took her life in 2003.
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But while the documentary shined a light on areas of Simone’s life that left a sullen tint on the Apollo audience, the evening played more as a celebration of her life. In anticipation of an upcoming tribute album to Simone featuring Usher, Robert Glasper, Mary J. Blige, Andra Day and more, the elusive Lauryn Hill, whose career has faced its own share of hardship, emerged for a short set of covers and originals with a robust backing band.
The former Fugees member, clad in a flowing white ensemble, delivered an energetic performance despite sound issues and a raspy voice that limited her range. But she invoked the enigmatic fervor that catapulted Simone into the ranks of mainstream royalty, beginning the set with “Ne Me Quitte Pas” and a rousing rendition of “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair.”
“How’s everybody tonight, good?” said Hill. “We gon’ try to rap with this. You with me?”
The sound mixers weren’t, and it took Hill three false starts to set the levels right for an ambitious new song based on an interpolation of Simone’s “Ain’t Got No, I Got Life.” Though she was a dynamic bandleader, accepting only the best from her backers, she passed the mic to Sullivan — “She can sing for the both of us,” said Hill — to flawlessly perform her protest anthem “Baltimore.”
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It was the closing number when the venue felt the most alive, with Hill returning to the spotlight for the instrumental track “African Mailman.” Each musician took turns playing solo at Hill’s command, making for a rousing interpretation of the classic track.
As the band hit the final note, Hill looked out, smiling on the crowd. “Thank you, Nina Simone,” she said, “for existing — and being bold enough to speak.”