What Happened, Miss Simone?

What Happened, Miss Simone? is a middling documentary with a fascinating subject at its center. The story the doc offers over the course of its 102-minute running time is a fairly conventional one – a birth-to-death narrative that covers the assorted ups and downs in the life of the gifted singer/songwriter Nina Simone. There are moments when it feels awfully close to the sort of thing you'd see on VH1 – if VH1 had any interest in an artist of Ms. Simone's caliber, anyway. Director Liz Garbus (whose other works include Love, Marilyn and Bobby Fischer Against the World) understands how compelling her subject is, but she doesn't dig deep enough in her effort to help us understand who Miss Simone really was.

When Nina was young, she dreamed of being a classical concert pianist. She began taking piano lessons at the age of four, and was an extraordinarily skilled musician by the time she turned eighteen. Her career goals took an abrupt change of pace when she was denied entry into the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia – she was later told that she had been denied due to the color of her skin. In an effort to fund her education, she began performing more popular types of music at nightclubs, and in the process cultivated a distinctive musical sound. Simone's music was a fascinating fusion of classical, jazz, blues, gospel, folk and R&B – it sounded like everything she had ever heard, and like nothing anyone else had heard before.

I've long said that Nina Simone is the only artist I can think of who made every single song she performed sound like her own. She had original songs, of course – the revolutionary civil rights lament “Mississippi Goddam” perhaps the most memorable of them – but many of her songs were covers. She took the songs other people had written and reshaped them dramatically, finding new meanings in the words and new sounds within the melody. She used the piano to create a surprisingly diverse array of sounds, and her voice proved just as flexible. “Sometimes I sound like gravel, and sometimes I sound like coffee and cream,” Simone says. On top of all of this, she was a spellbinding live performer, with a stage presence that made every show an unforgettable one (music history of the 20th century is full of “I saw Nina Simone perform” anecdotes). Recognizing this, Garbus is often content to simply let the viewer observe: there are long, beautiful stretches of nothing but Nina and her music.

These are understandably the film's high points, but the movie struggles when it attempts to bring something of its own to the table. It makes a note of many of Nina's struggles, underlining the way the civil rights movement affected her career (she lost out on a good deal of mainstream fame and fortune, as she placed her activism front and center throughout most of the 1960s) and her personal struggles (revealing that her husband Andrew beat and raped her). However, it doesn't seem to know how to explore these topics. The film's biggest misstep is in its hesitancy to really confront these matters – it lets Andrew share his memories of their marriage, and doesn't really bother to challenge his assertions that he hit Nina because she was difficult to deal with. Nina's daughter Lisa talks about being abused by her mother, but the film treats this as a stray anecdote rather than a topic worth exploring.

It has a tendency to paper over her more complex moments – her bisexuality is hardly mentioned despite the frequent attention to her personal life, and the challenges of her later years (including two incidents in which she shot at people) are ignored in favor of a happily-ever-after finish that pays tribute to the medications Nina was placed on. If you've read much about Simone's later years, you'll know that they deserve to be treated more honestly than they are here. And yet, for all of the ways the movie waters down harsher aspects of Nina's life, it seems hesitant to really embrace her at her best. Her years as a civil rights warrior are generally regarded as a disappointment – there are too many “just think of how much damage she did to her professional career” laments. One senses that Simone would probably scoff at such condescending pity. She was a deeply flawed, troubled woman, but too much of her life is depicted as a series of missed opportunities. This is a woman who gave the world new musical ideas, influenced hundreds of great artists, fought passionately for what she believed in and gained fame and respect without compromising who she was.

The documentary has serious issues, but it would be foolish to claim that it's without merit. There are diary entries we've never read before, interview recordings we've never heard before and bits of footage we've never seen before. It brings Simone fans a little closer to gaining a full picture of the woman, even if it fails as a comprehensive portrait on its own terms. It's the documentary equivalent of a mediocre film containing a great lead performance – you can't take your eyes off the person at its center, but it's easy to get frustrated with the story being told.

What Happened, Miss Simone?

Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 102 minutes
Release Year: 2015