As “What Happened, Miss Simone?” begins, the late jazz singing titan Nina Simone is asked by an interviewer to describe what makes her happy. Happiness, she explains, equates to being free, a life with no complications, and she explains the closest she has come to that uncomplicated freedom is performing on stage. And as she says it, she smacks her hand against her forehead, almost stupefied, like she didn’t realize she had experienced it until she said it aloud in this moment. Director Liz Garbus then cuts, predictably but no less aptly, to Simone performing “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free”, suggesting that Simone’s whole life was a fight to feel free.
“What Happened, Miss Simone?” is told linearly, charting Nina Simone’s life from its humble beginnings to the middle passages of musical success and civil rights activism to an ending of alternating tragedy and redemption. Many talking heads, including Simone’s daughter and ex-husband – her abusive ex-husband who spends most of his interviews focusing on his ex-wife’s faults – to musician allies and close friends, are featured to provide both exposition and emotional reminiscences. Even so, one voice towers over all of them... Nina’s.
That voice comes in two forms. First, her astonishing singing voice, one which Garbus repeatedly, gratefully gives the film over to by putting the narrative on hold in order to simply bestow glorious archival concert footage of Ms. Simone. These performances mesmerize, whether old jazz standards given an alternate existence in her rendering or gripping protestations such as her still striking “Mississippi Goddam”, momentarily blocking out whatever painful truth the rest of the doc might have raised, a testament to her music’s power and to the idea that the music itself is never enough. We know this because the other form Simone’s voice takes throughout is her voice, whether in recordings from old interviews or words she wrote in letters and diaries. Her admissions can be cutting, like the desire to be classical pianist rather than a jazz singer which was the category into which she was eternally placed. When she plays Carnegie Hall, she regrets it’s not to play Bach, a moment of immense honesty and complexity, where you can be both on top of the world and still frustrated, which speaks directly to her whole life.
Her own words, however, become more scant as the film progresses and she leaves America and her abusive ex-husband for Africa and then Europe. Though she initially proclaims her happiness, it was there that her undiagnosed mental illness took hold, instigating titanic struggles that would hound her until the end. You desperately wish she was still around to give an exact accounting of these tough times, especially when it is hinted at, if never outright expressed, that medication compromised her artistic ability, which seems to suggest the age-old notion of Madness = Genius, which cheapens Simone’s impact and ability.
The real answer to the question posed by the film’s title, however, is in the passages before these, when Simone’s musicianship eventually melded with civil rights activism, one that manifested itself in an almost militant manner, more Huey Newton than Martin Luther King Jr. You can see glimmers of it in the film’s early-going, like an incredible video of Simone performing on Hugh Hefner’s TV series, Playboy’s Penthouse. She sits at a piano, surrounded entirely by white folks, as the young Hef, unctuous as ever, introduces her. The look in her eye indubitably expresses: “What the fuck am I doing here?” A few years later she would have popped him in the eye, I suspect, and God what I would have given to see it.
It feels like a moment you can trace from Simone doing what she’s supposed to do to what she wants to do, and the most significant tragedy is that Simone’s attempts to be free via crusading are exactly what limited that freedom, and prompted a public shaming, and eventually the self-imposed exile. Radicalism has never looked so necessary and yet so helpless, summarized in a later interview when she’s asked about the current status of the civil rights movement and she angrily answers “There’s no civil rights movement. Everybody’s gone.” “Everybody” was all the others but she may as well have been speaking for herself.
The cruel irony is that Simone’s voice was given life by a woman filled with so much pain, which casts something of a pall in retrospect over the songs we see her croon on screen. And yet in watching them, when everything else falls away and it’s just her on the stage, you’ll swear that somewhere in there you’re hearing the sound of a woman who feels free.