‘ What Hap­pened, Miss Si­mone?’

‘ What Hap­pened, Miss Si­mone?’ is a com­pelling look at a huge, com­plex tal­ent.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - KEN­NETH TU­RAN FILM CRITIC ken­neth. tu­ran @ latimes. com

The tu­mul­tuous, at times tragic life of vo­cal stylist Nina Si­mone.

“What Hap­pened, Miss Si­mone?” an­swers its own ques­tion. This im­pres­sive and deeply felt doc­u­men­tary starts with that query, asked by Maya An­gelou in a 1970 mag­a­zine ar­ti­cle, and then in­ti­mately ex­am­ines the tu­mul­tuous, at times tragic life of the ex­quis­ite vo­cal stylist who bat­tled her trou­bled per­sonal history as well as the world’s in­jus­tices.

Ex­pertly di­rected by the vet­eran Liz Gar­bus (“The Farm: An­gola USA,” “Bobby Fis­cher Against the World”) and made with the ap­proval of the late Nina Si­mone’s es­tate and the on- cam­era co­op­er­a­tion of her only child, Lisa Si­mone Kelly, “What Hap­pened, Miss Si­mone?” be­gins with a fes­ti­val ap­pear­ance by the singer that cap­tures her com­plex­i­ties in a sin­gle clip.

Ap­pear­ing on stage at the Mon­treux fes­ti­val in 1976 be­fore a huge ador­ing crowd, Si­mone stands next to her pi­ano as a re­mark­able range of un­happy emo­tions ap­pear to cross her face. Then, in a mo­ment, all traces of anger, dis­tance and fear dis­ap­pear; she breaks into a daz­zling smile, sits at the pi­ano and be­gins an in­tox­i­cat­ing per­for­mance.

“My mother was one of the great­est en­ter­tain­ers of all time, but she paid a price,” says Kelly. “My mother was Nina Si­mone 24- 7, and that’s where it be­came a prob­lem.

When the show ended she was alone, f ight­ing her own de­mons, full of anger and rage. She couldn’t live with her­self, and ev­ery­thing fell apart.”

“Miss Si­mone?” has new in­ter­views with key peo­ple in her life, like long­time gui­tarist and mu­si­cal di­rec­tor Al Schack­man and two daugh­ters of Mal­colm X ( the fam­i­lies lived next to each other in Mount Ver­non, N. Y.), but it in­ten­tion­ally avoids trib­ute- type sound bites from other singers.

What we hear in­stead are the voices of the peo­ple who lived the story, such as con­tro­ver­sial hus­band and man­ager An­drew Stroud ( in footage from an un­fin­ished 2006 doc­u­men­tary) and Si­mone her­self talk­ing about what she tri­umphed over, what she en­dured.

Di­rec­tor Gar­bus ( who says “Miss Si­mone?” is “the f ilm I’ve been prac­tic­ing my whole life to make”) and her team tracked down more than 100 hours of Si­mone record­ings, in­clud­ing the more than 25 hours of in­ter­views she gave the co- writer of her au­to­bi­og­ra­phy.

Just as im­me­di­ate, if not more so, are en­large­ments of ex­cerpts from the singer’s hand­writ­ten jour­nals, which tell in of­ten painful de­tail the dif­fi­cul­ties as­so­ci­ated with her mar­riage and pri­vate life.

What we get most of all is Si­mone per­form­ing parts of more than two dozen songs, rang­ing from “Strange Fruit” to “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” in that un­mis­tak­able voice. As mu­sic and cul- tu­ral critic Stan­ley Crouch says, “You only have to hear her once. No one sounds like her ex­cept her.”

Which makes it all the more re­mark­able that the singer, born Eu­nice Way­mon in Tryon, N. C., had a to­tally dif­fer­ent mu­si­cal ca­reer on her mind. Si­mone be­gan play­ing the pi­ano at age 3, had years of clas­si­cal lessons, stud­ied at Juil­liard and gave up the dream at age 21 only when she was turned down by the Curtis In­sti­tute of Mu­sic in Philadelphia.

In need of a way to make money, she started play­ing pi­ano and singing at clubs in nearby At­lantic City. To hide the na­ture of her work from her Methodist min­is­ter mother, she changed her name, tak­ing Nina from the Span­ish word for “girl” and Si­mone from an ac­tress she ad­mired, Si­mone Sig­noret.

With ap­pear­ances at the New­port Jazz Fes­ti­val and a record­ing con­tract, Si­mone’s ca­reer took off.

One of the most dis­con­cert­ing clips in “Miss Si­mone?” has her singing a still heartrend­ing ver­sion of her f irst hit, “I Loves You, Porgy” from “Porgy and Bess,” in the sur­real sur­round­ings of Hugh Hefner’s “Play­boy’s Pen­t­house” TV se­ries.

Si­mone’s mar­riage to Stroud proved prob­lem­atic, to say the least. A for­mer New York City po­lice sergeant who helped her be­come a star, Stroud was an as­tute busi­ness­man who ad­vanced her ca­reer, but he had a vi­o­lent streak that led to beat­ings, and Si­mone came to feel he was work­ing her too hard.

“He pro­tected me against ev­ery­one but him­self,” she says in an in­ter­view. “He wrapped him­self around me like a snake.” And Stroud was def­i­nitely not on board when the birth of the civil rights move­ment led Si­mone to rad­i­cally change her pri­or­i­ties.

De­ter­mined to add mean­ing to her star­dom, Si­mone be­came a pas­sion­ate ad­vo­cate of equal­ity. Her cir­cle of friends grew to in­clude James Bald­win, Lorraine Hans­berry and Stokely Carmichael, and she wrote some of the move­ment’s most pas­sion­ate an­thems, in­clud­ing “Young, Gifted and Black.” “I was needed,” she says sim­ply. “Singing to help my peo­ple be­came the main­stay of my life.”

Si­mone’s per­sonal be­hav­ior was fre­quently er­ratic ( she was di­ag­nosed as bipo­lar in the late 1980s), and she lived in dif­fer­ent coun­tries af­ter leav­ing the U. S. in the early 1970s, but her quest for free­dom re­mained a con­stant.

“It’s a feel­ing, you know it when it hap­pens,” she says in one in­ter­view. “Free­dom is no fear. I wish I could have that.”

Peter Rodis Netf l i x

NEW I NTER­VIEWS with key peo­ple in Nina Si­mone’s life add to “What Hap­pened, Miss Si­mone?”

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