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Wednesday, June 17, 2015

WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE? Captures the Complexity of One of the Most Fascinating Artists Ever



As pop culture critics, we tend to measure the value of someone's talent by whose it most resembles from a previous generation; Michael B. Jordan is the next Denzel Washington, George Clooney is Cary Grant reincarnate, and Beyonce is Tina Turner 2.0 (a comparison by which I am still offended). But icons of yesteryear, like Nina Simone, stood in leagues of their own--pioneers of their own genre and way ahead of their time. In fact, they were often prisoners of their own time.

I thought of this as I watched filmmaker Liz Garbus's new documentary, WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE?. In it, Garbus chronicles Simone's steady rise to fame, personal demons she fought her entire life, and her conflicted relationship with her own celebrity. It was that last point that was the most fascinating aspect of the film (though Simone's story in its entirety is something that will likely captivate everyone differently). An aspired classic pianist, Simone never got a chance to play Bach in front of a sold-out Carnegie Hall. While she excelled--and obviously loved--jazz, this was a point of contention for her, as well as her increasingly public politics that continued to escalate at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, often seeping into her music and polarizing her fans. As Ilyasah Shabazz (daughter of Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz), who is featured in the film, poignantly remarked: "She was not at odds with the times; they were at odds with her." But it was her staunch individuality as an artist and a passionate political figure that was as much mesmerizing as it was dangerous--a duplicity that only excited Simone more during an era in which the color of her skin was a threat in itself.

The complexity of Simone's persona is captured in personal interviews with the singer--about everything from her troubled marriage to Andrew Stroud (who was also her manager) to her battle with manic depression and her strained relationship with her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly (also featured in the film). Kelly also candidly reflects on her mother's legacy, a mix of genuine admiration and perplexity, humanizing a woman who for many was--and still is--considered a hero. Simone's daughter offers a look at the icon as a maternal figure, who often hosted a full house that included similar-minded luminaries like the aforementioned Shabazz family and playwright Lorraine Hansberry, but was not without her stumbles that at times made her a virtual stranger to those closest to her.

As the title of the film (a nod to Maya Angelou's Redbook Magazine article about the "High Priestess of Soul" herself) alludes to Simone's complicated identity, WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE? removes the mystery behind her story that is as fascinating today as ever. Real, fiery and, devastating at times, this film is a must-see for not just fans of Nina Simone, but anyone who's interested in what it truly means to be an artist--fearless, honest and unapologetic.

WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE? releases on Netflix on June 26, with a theatrical premiere on June 24.

Rating: A (***** out of *****)

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