“Simone was incredibly enigmatic and unique, which in a weird way magnifies the sometimes-disappointing normality of this documentary.”
“But what happened, Miss Simone? 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?”
– Maya Angelou
The life of the irreplaceable singer Nina Simone was a whirlwind of the complicated, talented, unjust, tragic, and emotional. Indeed, Liz Garbus’ What Happened, Miss Simone? reveals that she lived all over the United States, then to Liberia, Switzerland, and France, at which she spent the last decade of her life in the town of Carry-le-Rouet on the Riviera, where she died of breast cancer in 2003. She was married once, in a tumultuous and often abusive relationship. She was a political firestorm, fervent upon the fight for civil rights in the 1960s through any means necessary, to the point where she once told Martin Luther King, Jr., quite decidedly and bluntly, “I’m not non-violent”. When she was on stage, performing, she was not afraid to simply leave the microphone and walk off if she felt her audience was being disruptive. Simone was incredibly enigmatic and unique, which in a weird way magnifies the sometimes-disappointing normality of this documentary.
The first frame of the movie is the Maya Angelou quotation I have printed above for reference throughout this review, and that is also where it gets is title. By placing such a primary, predominant statement at the head of What Happened, Miss Simone?, there is almost an unwritten expectation that this will be the kind of investigative nature that Garbus looks for in the following 103 minutes. However, it doesn’t really try to follow that path. It is a comprehensive account of her life, to be sure, but it doesn’t particularly address her legacy in the kind of capacity that many great biographies strive for, and this is brought to life by the high-concept title. What happened to her? It’s a secondary focus, and at times feels like a cookie-cutter biographical compilation, rather than something that delves deeper to explore the title and its implications. It combines flowing insight with stagnant shallowness.
Simultaneously painting Simone as the vibrant figure she was while not making a very vibrant movie, What Happened, Miss Simone? just isn’t the movie we’re well aware it can be. When it gets something right (like reading haunting passages from Simone’s diary to punctuate her inner and outer battles), it gets it very right. Garbus picks those up, but never holds them long enough to fully adapt to the rich material that is her subject’s life, or, I suspect even introduce much new information that those more familiar with Simone wouldn’t already have at least a cursory grasp on. It’s a stylistic and moderately informative presentation, yes, but when it comes to the powerful and open-ended question poised in its title, the film often comes short.