“Sometimes I sound like gravel and sometimes I sound like coffee and cream,” Nina Simone remarks of her signature husky tenor at one point in Liz Garbus’ documentary “What Happened, Miss Simone?” And it is that voice, spoken and sung, which guides us through Garbus’ meticulously researched, tough-love portrait of the brilliant but troubled folk/jazz/soul diva, drawing on a vast archive of audio interviews, diary pages and performance footage that allows Simone (who died of cancer in 2003) to answer the title question in her own unmistakable words. A most satisfying rendering of a complex cultural legacy, “Miss Simone” will reach audiences via Netflix following its opening-night Sundance premiere.
Garbus, who previously investigated the intersection of madness, genius and celebrity in documentaries about Marilyn Monroe (“Love, Marilyn”) and the chess master Bobby Fischer (“Bobby Fischer Against the World”), has perhaps her richest subject yet in Simone, whose life and career were predicated on resisting the very sort of labels and categories that biographies, by their very nature, are wont to apply. But Garbus embraces Simone in all her multitudes and contradictions — or at least as many of them as can be comfortably squeezed into a 100-minute running time.
She begins with the young Eunice Waymon, a working-class child of Jim Crow-era North Carolina, who exhibited a prodigious gift for classical piano studies and dreamed of becoming the first black female pianist to grace the stage of Carnegie Hall. But the racial attitudes of the time kept Waymon from realizing that dream, and instead saw her take to the stage of seedy Atlantic City bars where, rechristened Nina Simone (to insulate her family from embarrassment), she began to attract attention for her innovative arrangements of folk songs and standards, and a performance style that was at once rigorously precise and brilliantly improvisational.
Simone would eventually make it to Carnegie Hall — albeit as a pop artist — in a career that saw her evolve from a jazz virtuoso (fashioning an unlikely chart-topping hit out of the Gershwins’ “I Loves You, Porgy”) to a fiery protest singer who rubbed elbows with the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael. On stage, she commanded the kind of hushed reverence more commonly associated with classical performers (and could storm off in a huff if she didn’t receive it). But as with many similarly gifted artists throughout history, Simone’s professional success seemed to amplify rather than ease a deep-set self-doubt and emotional instability, setting her on a gradual collision course with herself. Or, as daughter Lisa Simone Kelly deftly puts it, “My mother was Nina Simone 24/7, and that’s where it became a problem.”
Especially in its first hour, where the archival footage is at its richest and most varied, the movie envelops you in a beautifully edited rush of Simone — recounting her lonely, somewhat ostracized childhood, making her debut at the Newport Jazz Festival, explaining what it means to her to be “free” onstage. Garbus is particularly sharp and unsentimental on the subject of Simone’s complex, co-dependent relationship with Andrew Stroud, the former New York cop who would become her second husband, manager and (by many accounts) her tormentor — a hard-driving taskmaster who pushed Simone toward greater and greater stardom and who could turn violent when she failed to obey. Yet it’s also clear that there was, at one time, real love between them, and that Simone was already suffering from the bipolar disorder she would not be formally diagnosed with until the 1980s.
Other than Simone Kelly, and a repurposed interview with Stroud, Garbus limits the third-party talking heads to Simone’s close friends and collaborators (including her longtime guitarist and musical director Al Shackman), but smartly resists turning the movie into a pageant of present-day testimonials about the singer’s influence and legacy. Mostly, she just lets Simone take the stage, reasoning that the best way to understand her is through her songs — performances in which Simone seems to be pouring out every ounce of herself, the music flowing through her like an electric current, her voice echoing forth as if from some place deep inside the earth.
Watching her, you marvel that she didn’t burn out sooner — and maybe she would have, had she not become radicalized by the 1960s civil rights movement, which took her music in an overtly political direction and made her a hero of the revolutionary black left. Some (like Stroud) felt that Simone went too far, alienating her more mainstream fans and wounding her commercial fortunes. But heard again today, songs like the fiery “Mississippi Goddam” and the hopeful “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” sound as urgent as if they’d been written only yesterday, and they carry Simone’s voice forward into another era of black struggle in America. Somewhere, one suspects, Miss Simone is smiling.