Being Nina Simone

Published June 25, 2015

NINA SIMONE IN THE NETFLIX ORIGINAL DOCUMENTARY WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE? PHOTO COURTESY OF PETER RODIS/NETFLIX.

Returning to the stage at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1976, Nina Simone prefaced her performance with, “I think the only way to tell you who I am these days is to sing a song.” Born Eunice Waymon in rural North Carolina in 1933, Simone trained as a classical pianist as a child. Earning the moniker “The High Priestess of Soul” for her powerful, indelible voice, she emerged out of the ’60s as a jazz icon, who abandoned a more commercial career route to create music as an activist and agent of the Civil Rights Movement. Her transfixing set at Montreux opens Netflix’s original documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?, directed by Liz Garbus, the Oscar-nominated filmmaker behind The Farm: Angola USA, Bobby Fischer Against the World, and Love, Marilyn.

Garbus constructs a fully-realized portrait of Simone’s biography through her own voice, using 30 years’ worth of recently found audio tapes, diaries, and letters, as well as archival concert footage and interviews with those closest to her, including her daughter Lisa Simone Kelly. The film traces Simone’s experience growing up a musical prodigy facing racism in the Jim Crow-era South; her early success and volatile relationship with her husband and manager, Andrew Stroud; her late-in-life bipolar diagnosis; her friendships with James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, and the Shabazz family; and her alignment with the Black Power movement. What emerges is a striking account of an artist besieged by her own rage, striving for freedom in society, her marriage, and her music.

COLLEEN KELSEY: When I read your director’s statement, you made this note that you started your career making films about prisons and institutions and transitioned to making films about “prisons of the mind.” What was that evolution like for you?

LIZ GARBUS: It’s not deliberate. Each project draws you in on its own merits as opposed to an intellectual choice of, “Well, I’m going to shift from vérité filmmaking to more archival.” But I guess what I get excited about when I’m thinking about projects is that toothy, complex area of goodness and badness and the gray areas of human behavior and existence. Nina was someone who was quite misunderstood her whole life. She was known as violent, or difficult, or a prima donna. Once you begin to unpack those, you get into not only the social perceptions, how those terms and ideas are coded by both gender and race, but also the complexity of her psychology. You understand what made her react in any moment in the way that she did. It’s a similar thing when you’re looking at people in prisons, or you’re looking at Bobby Fischer, who was somebody who suffered. He was a genius, but he suffered from mental illness, and those judgments that we make of people are so generally superficial.

KELSEY: Why do you think society, and pop culture in general, has this obsession with the “damaged, troubled” artist?

GARBUS: Marilyn [Monroe] is one example of being very attracted to that kind of damaged, fragile, soul. I would argue that Marilyn was incredibly strong and brave and boundary-busting. But I think Bobby Fischer or Nina Simone were people who were not embraced for their toothiness. They were rejected and shunned for it. I think there are those devotees, those fans who loved to go to a Nina show, they loved the energy and the tension and the confrontation of it, but there are many, in the sense of a commercial point of view, who were actually quite turned off. She paid a big price for it. I think perhaps today, or posthumously, we can fetishize those aspects of her career. Artists today can prop her up; Kanye West can prop her up as the icon of the rebellious, genius, activist entertainer. But at the same time, I think in her day she was actually not celebrated for those qualities.

KELSEY: Did you know much about her biography before you started working on this film?

GARBUS: No. I was a fan of her music. One perceives that there’s something extraordinary going on there. There’s a depth of feeling and emotion and a range of life experience that is incredibly impressive. For me it was always healing. If I ever felt pain from whatever little thing I was experiencing, listening to her, this was a person who had been wherever you might ever have been or felt. So I think one knows that there was a fascinating and definitely a tortured soul in there. But I didn’t know the story. I didn’t know the narrative whatsoever.

KELSEY: How did the documentary come about?

GARBUS: I was invited to pitch as a director. Radical Media was approached by the estate and they were finally ready to let someone in.

KELSEY: What do you think was the driving point in your pitch that they responded to?

GARBUS: I was fascinated by a couple of things. I was fascinated by her childhood, by the classical music background, and how understanding that gave me insight into her music and its brilliance. Of course, her life experience growing up as an African-American child in the Jim Crow South, but being held up as a prodigy. This glass box of a childhood that she had resonated for me a lot, because I think that sort of childhood is almost impossible to survive, in some ways, without scars. That, to me, was a really interesting aspect. Also, we know the stories of those who participated in the civil rights movement, who died, who gave their lives for it. But what about those who survived? You give your entire life to a cause. It was a moment of such promise and hope for so many millions of people, and then that cause is extinguished. How does that affect a human being? Understanding her involvement in the civil rights movement and the failure of it is key to understanding Nina.

KELSEY: I also wanted to talk about the decision to limit the interviews and talking heads, and let Nina’s voice direct the narrative. The diaries, for me, I think, were the most compelling in her personal effects.  

GARBUS: When I watch films about great artists, first of all, I’m interested in their art. In the case of Nina, the music is incredibly narrative because her personal experience is woven into every song. So, you want to use those songs to tell a story as much as possible and to have those who were really in the inner circle, and very close to her, tell the story. There’s the Bob Dylans and the Mick Jaggers and all the folks who could talk about how she inspired them. I think that’s terrific, but I felt my role was to go from the inside out, not from the outside in.

My mantra, as a filmmaker, was to bring as much of Nina as possible. She was someone who was so raw and honest. She was so expressive of her inner turmoil. Of course, the tapes that we were able to uncover were revelatory. She lived 70 years. That’s a great career. She didn’t die young, she had a long life, there were many phases of it. So how do you choose what to highlight? The tapes allowed us to listen to Nina about what were the key parts to her life. What were the tent poles that helped her understand her career and who she was? Returning to Nina, and her voice, was my guide.

KELSEY: Her main objective in life was to be a classical pianist. In the end, she ended up making something much larger—her own distinctive style—but do you think that she ultimately felt that she had failed in what she set out to do as a musician?

GARBUS: I think if you asked her that, she would say yes. But I think that she was very aware of her power on stage. She was very aware of her musical prowess. I know that she knew how much she affected people and reached people. I think all of us, looking back on our careers and our lives, there’ll probably be a “road not taken” that we’ll regret and mourn. Certainly, artists will always feel that way, especially when the path taken was more commercial than the one not taken.

KELSEY: What about the commercial aspect of her career, which shifted after she became more politically active?

GARBUS: With Nina, everything was in opposition to something else. She started off with a very promising commercial debut and in the early ’60s, was really on the path to stardom. But the political music diverted her from that same kind of commercial success, playing on the evening shows like the Aretha Franklins and the Gladys Knights. But at the same time, she wouldn’t have had it any other way. She couldn’t but speak her mind on all of these issues. If you listen to her narrative of her own life, that music was the mainstay of her life. She says it. When she says, “I really felt free,” I think that’s when she’s talking about inspiring people and lifting people up. Or when she’s singing “To Be Young, Gifted And Black” at Amherst and she says, “There are only 800 blacks students here, this song is only for you.” Using that power to inspire an oppressed people was huge for her. She had no choice but to do it. But if you look later in life, she looked back on it and said, “You know, I paid a big price for that, and those songs aren’t even relevant.” It’s kind of a tragedy in that sense. But I think that we see that she was wrong. We can see how, today, she is a model of engagement and righteousness. She is relevant.

KELSEY: There’s also the moment where [Simone’s husband and manager] Andy is so skeptical of her burgeoning political interests on the bottom line.

GARBUS: That’s a very typical story. The manager/artist story. Managers all over the world will go crazy when their artists are not touting the party line and making things pretty in the way that they’re supposed to, but it’s different when your manager is your husband. It’s contrary to your soul. That commercial interest presses in upon your whole personal life. That debate, of course, within the black community, and the activist community in general, was, can you keep one foot in and one foot out? How do you play both sides? It’s a classic debate but Nina wanted to put two feet on the other side. She’s out there, speaking her truth and aligning herself with the Black Power movement. She wasn’t going to be held back.

KELSEY: During the process of constructing the documentary, were there any discoveries you made that really affected you or drove the way you constructed the narrative?

GARBUS: The challenge was: Here was a woman who gave everything of herself to a movement. She put it all on the mat, and the mat gets thrown away. Here’s a person who clearly has nascent mental health issues, which are going to be exacerbated by the stress of the time, and by a marriage. Here’s a person whose art, the way she saw it, was compromised and chiseled away at the edges. How do you keep all of those tensions together? There’s no one thing ever causing change, or ups and downs. It’s all of those things together, at all the same time. Also thinking about her as a mother. That tension in her life between failing her daughter, or being a present mother, was clearly always there for her. You can tell from the letters and the diaries. I mean, that certainly was surprising because I think if you looked at her from the outside, it would look like she was pretty much checked out in the mother department. But when you look at her diaries, that was something that she was really quite consumed with, a sense of guilt and inadequacy in that regard. I think probably a lot of people who live life on the road, that’s something that’s quite relatable. That was fairly surprising.

KELSEY: What did you learn from Lisa’s perspective? What did she bring to the conversation?

GARBUS: Lisa, like her mother, is incredibly brave. When she shared the darkest moments of her childhood with me, she gave herself to me entirely. She put her story in my hands, and let me go on a journey to shape the story of her mother. Just as a human being, that trust is extraordinary to me. I think it’s made the film what it is. She doesn’t excuse the things that were done to her, but at the same time, she’s able to appreciate the context in which they happened, the context of the times, and the context of what it was to try to be Nina Simone. That’s extraordinary.

WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE? IS CURRENTLY SCREENING AT IFC CENTER IN NEW YORK, AND WILL DEBUT ON NETFLIX FRIDAY, JUNE 26.