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Nina Simone was an insomniac. She preferred absolute silence from the audience while she performed. She smoked Kool cigarettes and wore mink coats and for many years lived next door to Malcolm X. She believed in magic. She was highly distractible and wanted to be famous and did not enjoy fame. She once had an affair with the prime minister of Barbados. She dreamed of becoming the first black female concert pianist. Asked in an interview to define freedom, she replied, "It's just a feeling." Late in life, she was diagnosed as manic depressive and prescribed Trilafon. After she left the U.S. in the 1970s, she began referring to the country exclusively as the "United Snakes of America."
Simone is the subject of a new documentary portrait released exclusively on Netflix and directed by Liz Garbus, who has previously produced films about deadly car crashes, the reclusive chess champion Bobby Fischer and Abu Ghraib. The movie borrows its epigraph and title, "What Happened, Miss Simone?" from Maya Angelou; I assumed the source was a poem, but when I looked it up, I learned it was a 1970 profile published in the fashion magazine Redbook. "But what happened, Miss Simone?" Angelou writes. "Specifically, what happened to your big eyes that quickly veil to hide the loneliness? To your voice that has so little tenderness, yet flows with your commitment to the battle of Life? What happened to you?"
This is the guiding mystery at the center of the film, which proceeds in straightforward chronological fashion from her modest roots in segregated North Carolina to her early New York success, from her breakthrough stints performing at Carnegie Hall and Hugh Hefner's strange talk show "Playboy's Penthouse," to her strident political conversion during the civil rights movement, which would come to define and, she believed, ultimately sabotage her career.
There are many brilliant clips of her live performances in the film, most of them frustratingly brief. Still, they in themselves probably justify the existence of the movie. Viewed in succession this way, all in a row, they are especially moving. She was an extraordinarily hypnotic and physically immediate performer — her mannerisms were as prominent and as interesting as her pitch or timbre, which were also alien and fascinating — and she felt at home in indescribably complex time signatures. Her versions of pop standards like "I Love You, Porgy" and "Lilac Wine" were mangled and painful and profound — she was, as her longtime guitarist Al Shackman explains, "not interpreting it, but metamorphosing it."
Much of the film's drama — like that of her career — is rooted in her transition from aesthetic to political modernism. This was the case with many artists who came of age creatively in the late '60s. Think of Jean-Luc Godard, who alienated his pop-cinephile audience when he turned Maoist, or John Lennon, who spooked the middle-brow when he aligned himself with Timothy Leary and Yoko and the anti-war left. So it was with Nina Simone, who authored the greatest, most harrowing protest song of the late 20th century, "Mississippi Goddamn," and spoke at civil rights demonstrations, where she asked audiences, over bongo drums, if they were "ready to smash white things?" She agreed with Malcolm X that revolutions are "never peaceful, never loving, never nonviolent," and she was right, and it ruined her as a commercial entity.
Few biographical documentaries entirely avoid the stylistic and storytelling cliches of PBS and Ken Burns — all the solemn narration over slow pans across black-and-white images — and neither does Garbus' film escape this trap, for the most part. There are interminable talking-head interviews, which manage to extract sometimes shockingly banal observations from even the most redoubtable artists and critics, like Stanley Crouch. Much more interesting are the dated trappings of '60s music promotion: the flyers and posters and unrecognizable TV programs. Also the actual pages from Simone's diaries, which were previously explored in Joe Hagan's essential 2010 essay "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free," published in The Believer.
"To stay alive as a family we had to work at it," Simone says of her upbringing at one point. "We had to keep secrets." Among her generation, there was no more fundamentally enigmatic performer, and if the film doesn't solve the enigma, it at least brings us closer to the performances. She deserved better, is the story's inescapable conclusion. If the documentary seems overly sad, it's only because the life was.