What Happened Miss Simone?



In a rush of blood to the head late last year I signed up for a trial month to the Australian version of Netflix and promptly discovered there was almost nothing I wanted to watch! There were numerous complaints that we were only getting a fraction of the content available to USA subscribers but now, six months later, that has obviously changed for the better.

Not having worked out how to cancel my subscription, I recently found this acclaimed documentary online (along with some other excellent music ones commissioned by the network) which suddenly makes the cheap subscription worthwhile. (In much the same way that some might claim that it is only the AFL channel makes Foxtel worth it!). No doubt I will be sourcing more recent releases here rather than waiting for the DVD release (which may or may not happen in Australia).

I was keen to see What Happened Miss Simone? because not only does it spotlight one of the most influential singers and songwriters of all time but because I had read Alan Light’s book of the same title. This film had also been nominated for an Oscar this year (the winner was Amy, another gruelling personal story).

The time seems right for a Nina Simone revival. Rhiannon Giddens’ album Tomorrow Is My Turn featured two songs performed by Simone. The recent focus on race relations in America certainly brings the spotlight onto this civil rights campaigner and Giddens spoke in concert of how she had been studying African slave narratives that had inspired her current song writing.

In fact, I spoke to Giddens during her tour earlier this year and suggested that there could be an alternative history of American music and she retorted, correctly, that it would actually be the true history. Certainly, after you watch this film you might be surprised that Simone is not much better known to the general public. If you have not previously known much of her story, then your surprise could turn to astonishment. Simone’s presence was commanding.

In the opening scene of this marvellous film Simone stands in silence at a piano on stage taking in the applause, staring into the distance and not saying a word. It seems to last for hours and the tension builds before she finally sits at her piano and says, ‘Good evening.’ The crowd erupts.

Director Liz Garbus employs the usual talking-head comments, including very revealing ones from Simone’s daughter. There are also long concert performances that are absolutely mesmerising. [I regret that I never saw her in performance]. Simone had an interesting relationship with her audience and would not hesitate to tell someone to sit down or shut up – or both. Trained as a classical pianist from childhood she demanded attention.

Born Eunice Waymon in North Carolina in 1933, Simone had high hopes for a career in classical music. Tutored by a teacher from literally the other side of the tracks she practised 7 or 8 hours a day and, later, while she attended Juilliard for a while she was denied admission to the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. Simone blamed racism for this rejection and when you see her playing later in her life, with an impeccable technique even on complex songs, you can easily understand why she would have felt that way.

Eunice Waymon became Nina Simone when she got work performing in a bar in Atlantic City, playing standards and popular songs of the day for hours on end. Her alter ego was born so that people in her home town would not know it was her. Soon she got a recording contract and enjoyed her first hit ‘I Love You, Porgy.’ There is an amazing clip of her performing the song on Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Penthouse TV show (which looks entirely as outdated as it now sounds).

Eventually, Simone’s life plummeted into turmoil with an abusive husband who became her manager. Not surprisingly, she suffered from depression and an inability to break free of her situation. However, amidst this personal turmoil Simone truly blossomed as a writer as she got involved in the Civil Rights movement. If Billie Holiday’s rendition of ‘Strange Fruit’ was one of the great social commentary songs of the 30’s and 40’s, then Simone’s ‘Mississippi Goddam’ (inspired by a church bombing that killed four young African American girls) stands as an equal and remains one of the great anthems of the 1960s.

Simone’s private life remained turbulent until her death at the age of 70 in 2003. This powerful film only partially answers the question as to what happened but, hopefully, it will turn a few more people onto the wonder of Nina Simone.

Brian Wise

Brian Wise was the Editor of Addicted To Noise‘s Australian site from 1997 – 2002. The site won two ONYA Awards as Best Online Music Magazine in 1999 & 2000. He has also been Editor since its reincarnation in 2013. He also presents the weekly music interview program Off The Record on 102.7 Triple R-FM (rrr.org.au) in Melbourne. It is networked to 45+ stations across Australia on the Community Radio Network and is a four-time winner of the Best Music Program Award from the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia. In 2012, it was nominated as a finalist in the Excellence in Music Programming category. Brian was also the Founding Editor & Publisher of Rhythms Magazine and is now its Senior Contributing Editor.

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