Sundance 2015 Review: WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE?
She approaches the piano with a regality that's startling, her eyes piercing the crowd and her shoulders locked in an almost feline repose. She places a hand on the grand piano sat in front of her and looks out, in a mix of anger and determination, at the cheering crowd. She mumbles an apology about being away for a while, and then sets her hands at the keys of the piano, running along them with astonishing rapidity. Her voice isn't quite as rich and piercing as it once was, but it's a voice that sings with conviction. Its timbre is smokey, its effect intoxicating.
And so, almost out of time, Nina Simone once again commands our attention, decades after this show, years after her death.
The title What happened, Miss Simone? comes from a Maya Angelou poem, and it turns out it's a perfect query to situate the film. More than just a music doc, Liz Garbus' film feels as much a cultural excavation as it does a showcase for an almost immeasurable talent. A classically-trained and gifted musican who reluctantly turned to pop/soul in order to make a living, Simone defies easy classification. For those unaware of her trajectory, the film will appear at times almost fanciful, as if all things couldn't have possibly happened in one lifetime.
On a strictly musical level, Garbus does a remarkable job at showing Simone's talent. A few of the clips are just bonkers; a rendition of "Ain't Got No" from the musical Hair literally made me gasp. As a fan of her music, I still was surprised by many of her diversions that I was unaware of. For the uninitiated, raised on a diet of autotune and digital sequencing, Simone's impeccable musicianship will both humble and enthrall.
Like the best music docs, movies where the tunes aren't doing the heavy lifting, there's much to admire about the film. The complex relationship between Simone and those around her -- her husband, her fans, her daughter, herself -- is explored with both sympathy and respect for the truth of the situation. The story told of Miss Simone makes her no poster child, with serious struggles and moments of hostility that, in retrospect, are positively barbaric. Yet these aspects shape both the woman and the music, and the film does well to shed light on the darkest parts of her life.
Yes, it's a talking head documentary peppered with performance footage, but the scope of her life and the unworldly talent on display makes the canvas of a cinema screen the ideal vantage to experience the film. With her Bach-infused licks, bluesy voice, and a team of world-class back-up musicians, this is a treasure trove of performances, each seemingly topping the next. Still, the tale of abuse, both physical and mental, is related with great delicacy. Simone's own words from her diary provide an intimacy that's at times shocking, giving the film a moral ambivalence and sophistication that's rare.
Simone's star has faded somewhat as tastes have changed. Her performances are almost too pure, her songs embracing jazz, blues, pop and classical with a perfection and impeccability that on first listen may lack a "funk" that sets it apart within a modern idiom. If the film accomplishes nothing else, it may provide for new generations an insight into a titanic talent, one that was in part allowed to grow fallow by the woman to whom it was given.
As the title asks, What Happened, Miss Simone? A hell of a lot, and this film does wonders to showcase her life in a sensitive and provocative way.