Movie Review: What Happened, Miss Simone?

What Happened, Miss Simone?
Directed by: Liz Garbus.

When I watch a movie like What Happened, Miss Simone?, I often wonder just who the documentary is made for. The film does a good enough job of covering the life of the famed singer Nina Simone – who had a tumultuous life and career, and is widely regarded as one of the best singers and performers of her generation. This documentary is at its best when it does nothing but sit back and let Miss Simone take centre stage, and belt out her songs – doing something I have often argued more music docs should do, and actually allow full songs to play out so the audience can see just what it is that makes these musicians so special in the first place that they need an entire documentary made about them. But while the film does do a good job of hitting the big moments of Nina Simone’s life and career, it never really digs into either one that deeply – meaning that those most likely to watch a documentary about Nina Simone – her fans – will likely walk away not having learned all that much. For a Nina Simone layman like myself – the documentary works – and for fans, there is still all the great concert footage, but I cannot help but wonder if the film will end up truly satisfying anyone.

 Nina Simone did have an interesting, eventful life though. A brilliant pianist, whose talent could not overcome the fact that she was black in a racist country, she started playing in bars in the mid-1950s, and had to sing at the same time, or risk losing her job. Her talent was large and immediate, and over the years she had quite a few hits. Throughout the 1960s, she became involved in the Civil Rights movement – going so far to align herself with the Black Panthers, and others who thought violence was necessary if African Americans were to achieve equality – that no one was going to give it. This hurt her career for years afterwards. She also had an abusive marriage – one that ended, but also saw Simone physically abusing her own daughter (an interview subject in the movie).

The film follows a fairly standard issue musical biopic formula – the rise and fall and rise again one that has worked so well in Ray and Walk the Line, among other. If nothing else, it would seem like the life of Nina Simone would fit snugly alongside of those films – and perhaps Nina, starring Zoe Saldana as the singer, will do so when it comes out next year.

As a documentary, I didn’t find What Happened, Miss Simone all that enlightening. By trying to cover Simone’s entire life, so much is simply grazed over – and not given as much attention as it required to be truly great. But even if that could be frustrating at times, there is still that concert footage, which is brilliant – and enough here to make you want to learn more about Nina Simone. On that level, I guess, the film is a success.

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