Around Christmas time I finally watched the powerful 2015 Netflix documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? Consider yourselves warned: the film is wrenchingly sad. It could just have easily been titled The Torture of Nina Simone or The Anguish of Nina Simone. The inside of Nina Simone's head was seemingly a harrowing place to be. But it’s compulsory viewing even for people with only a passing interest in Simone’s earthy but elegant musical oeuvre. It follows the former Eunice Waymon (a child musical prodigy born in 1933 in North Carolina) on her difficult transformation into the lacerating and angrily politicised High Priestess of Soul. There are plentiful hypnotic clips of the regal diva in performance, highlighting her serpentine piano playing and lacerating bittersweet voice (Simone herself explains “sometimes my voice sounds like gravel, sometimes it sounds like coffee with cream.”).
But it also explores the personal torment audible in Simone’s agonised singing. The genuine seething rage in Simone’s music makes for exciting art for us listeners but wasn’t so edifying for Nina Simone herself or the people close to her. She had a lifelong reputation for being volatile and temperamental. Only after her death was it revealed Simone lived with undiagnosed mental illness for much of her life (she didn’t start getting treatment for bipolar disorder until the eighties). She also suffered domestic violence in her tempestuous marriage with her manager-husband, a tough ex-vice cop. The documentary frequently incorporates revealing passages from Simone’s own journals, where she confides in her depression, loneliness and violent fantasies.
Her later life was blighted by financial difficulties, record label woes, legal problems (Simone wasn’t exactly thorough with her taxes), heavy drinking and the racism she routinely encountered in the country she called “The United Snakes of America.” The documentary puts Simone’s whiplash mood swings at her infamous performance at the 1976 Montreux Jazz Festival into context. It includes the scary moment when Simone abruptly stops playing when someone in the audience dares to get up from her seat mid-song. “You! Girl!” she hisses. “Sit down …” I wonder how long that woman required trauma counselling for?
/ You can watch Simone's entire Montreaux performance here /
There is unlikely to be a more definitive documentary on Simone than this: all of her closest intimates come forward to give warts-and-all accounts, including her ex-husband and the musicians who toured with the imperious chanteuse for decades. Most remarkable is Simone’s daughter Lisa, who frankly discusses her prickly relationship with her frequently abusive mother without a trace of bitterness.
On a more superficial level, What Happened Miss Simone? demonstrates how ineffably stylish Simone was over the decades. Early on she favoured cocktail gowns and sleek wigs. Later she increasingly embraced African headwraps, Cleopatra eyeliner, crocheted halter top-and-bell-bottoms combinations and Black is Beautiful natural Afro hair. The epitome of radical chic!
Simone found her true purpose giving expression to the civil rights movement in the sixties. The footage of her as an avenging fury singing for all-black audiences will make you want to give the Black Power salute to the TV. Nina Simone died in 2003 aged 70. You can’t help but wonder what she would have made of Black Lives Matter and the rise of Donald Trump.
/ "I'm gonna kill the first mutha I see ..." My all-time favourite Nina Simone track: the simmering-with-rage "Four Women" /