Film

What Happened, Miss Simone? Captures Its Subject in Stained Glass

This award-winning documentary raises the bar for how Simone is represented in popular culture and history books. It's now on DVD with a 15-song bonus CD.


What Happened, Miss Simone?

Director: Liz Garbus
Cast: Nina Simone, Lisa Simone Kelly, Al Schackman, Andrew Stroud, Attallah Shabazz, Stanley Crouch, Dick Gregory
Length: 1h 41min
Released by: Eagle Rock Entertainment
US Release Date: 2016-09-02

Nina Simone's forthright "Work Song", written by Nat Adderley and Oscar Brown, Jr., gives voice to the skid from dream-crushing poverty to rock-breaking chain gang. In the newly released 13th, a documentary by Ava DuVernay about racial inequality and criminal justice in the US, "Work Song" serves as incisive accompaniment to the advent of mass incarceration.

Simone's songs are rarely utilized so fittingly. A new ad for the Apple Watch Series 2 is more typical, set inexplicably to Simone's black gospel classic "Sinnerman", a song that's been used with comparable gall in a crime drama about high art theft and a documentary about sharks.

Another woeful exploitation of Simone can be seen in 2016's Nina, a factually distorted biopic starring Zoe Saldana in skin-darkening makeup and widened nose. A 33-year-old Saldana playing a 55 to 70-year-old Simone is disorienting to watch, just as Simone's young gay caretaker made straight and their relationship warped with romantic tensions is offensive. Film critics, Simone's family, and fans decried the film.

Such appropriations in popular culture, combined with a slighting of Simone in historical accounts of the Civil Rights Movement, make Liz Garbus's biographical documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015) more than just vital viewing for fans. Her Oscar-nominated, Emmy-winning documentary, now available on DVD from Eagle Rock Entertainment, raises the bar for how popular culture and history represent Simone. "This is the film I've been practicing to make all these years," claimed Garbus at its Sundance debut. She'd earned previous acclaim for documentaries focusing on race and criminal justice (The Farm: Angola, USA; The Execution of Wanda Jean; Girlhood), as well as documentaries about public figures (Bobby Fischer Against the World; Love, Marilyn).

Drawing from over 100 hours of recorded interviews, What Happened, Miss Simone? lets Simone narrate her own story: a child prodigy, trained to be the first black classical pianist, becomes a reluctant jazz singer and then an eager Civil Rights Movement revolutionary. Her daughter Lisa Simone Kelly, the documentary's executive producer, and Al Schackman, Simone's guitarist for 40 years, provide reliable insights into Simone's triumphs and heartbreaks. Garbus has been criticized for screentime given to Simone's abusive husband, but Andy Stroud also served as her manager during peak years and viewers can readily gauge his objectivity for themselves. Furthermore, placed where it is, "Work Song" operates in the documentary as an indictment of Stroud's treatment of Nina Simone.

8
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

Run the Jewels - "Ooh LA LA" (Singles Going Steady)

Run the Jewels' "Ooh LA LA" may hit with old-school hip-hop swagger, but it also frustratingly affirms misogynistic bro-culture.

Books

New Translation of Balzac's 'Lost Illusions' Captivates

More than just a tale of one man's fall, Balzac's Lost Illusions charts how literature becomes another commodity in a system that demands backroom deals, moral compromise, and connections.

Music

Protomartyr - "Processed by the Boys" (Singles Going Steady)

Protomartyr's "Processed By the Boys" is a gripping spin on reality as we know it, and here, the revolution is being televised.

Music

Go-Go's Bassist Kathy Valentine Is on the "Write" Track After a Rock-Hard Life

The '80s were a wild and crazy time also filled with troubles, heartbreak and disappointment for Go-Go's bass player-guitarist Kathy Valentine, who covers many of those moments in her intriguing dual project that she discusses in this freewheeling interview.

Music

New Brain Trajectory: An Interview With Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree

Two guitarists, Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree make an album largely absent of guitar playing and enter into a bold new phase of their careers. "We want to take this wherever we can and be free of genre restraints," says Lee Ranaldo.

Books

'Trans Power' Is a Celebration of Radical Power and Beauty

Juno Roche's Trans Power discusses trans identity not as a passageway between one of two linear destinations, but as a destination of its own.

Music

Yves Tumor Soars With 'Heaven to a Tortured Mind'

On Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Yves Tumor relishes his shift to microphone caressing rock star. Here he steps out of his sonic chrysalis, dons some shiny black wings and soars.

Music

Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras' tētēma Don't Hit the Mark on 'Necroscape'

tētēma's Necroscape has some highlights and some interesting ambiance, but ultimately it's a catalog of misses for Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras.

Music

M. Ward Offers Comforting Escapism on 'Migration Stories'

Although M. Ward didn't plan the songs on Migration Stories for this pandemic, they're still capable of acting as a balm in these dark hours.

Music

Parsonsfield Add Indie Pop to Their Folk on 'Happy Hour on the Floor'

Happy Hour on the Floor is a considerable departure from Parsonsfield's acclaimed rustic folk sound signaling their indie-pop orientation. Parsonsfield remind their audience to bestow gratitude and practice happiness: a truly welcomed exaltation.

Music

JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.

Music

All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he would shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means one of the brightest stars in the power-pop universe has suddenly dimmed.

Music

Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.

Music

Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.

Music

Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.

Film

'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.

Music

Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.

Books

Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews
Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.