WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE?(director: Liz Garbus; cinematographers: Igor Martinovic/Rachel Morrison; editor: Joshua L. Pearson; Runtime: 102; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Amy Hobby, Liz. Garbus, Justin Wilkes,Jayson Jackson; NetFlix; 2015)

A well-presented heartfelt but too simplistic documentary on a great singer’s troubled life.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A well-presented heartfelt but too simplistic documentary on a great singer’s troubled life, starting with her birth in segregated North Carolina. By trying to make the subject a saint, which she isn’t, the filmmaker fails to give her documentary the scope it needed. Yet it is superbly directed by Liz Garbus(“Bobby Fischer Against The World”/”Love, Marilyn”/”Ghosts of Abu Ghraib“), who dotes on the renown black singer Nina Simone as an iconic singer, who was always heavily involved in civil right causes and her political activism caused her to lose bookings prompting her self-exile in Liberia, Barbados and then Europe which made her financial situation always tenuous.

The title alludes to the poet Maya Angelou’s query in a 1970 magazine article about what ever happened to her. In an intimate and moving way the pic examines the complex Simone’s tragic life, who struggled with inner demons, a bad marriage, a troubling personal life as well as with her world-wide battle against racism and other injustices. The film was approved by the late Nina Simone’s estate and the singer’s only child, Lisa Simone Kelly. Lisa says on camera “My mother was one of the greatest entertainers of all time, but she paid a price. When the show ended she was alone, fighting back at her anger and rage. She couldn’t live with herself, and everything fell apart.”

In footage from a 2006 documentary we hear from her controversial husband and manager Andrew Stroud. Other interviews include longtime music director and guitarist Al Schackman and Mount Vernon neighbors Malcolm X’s Shabazz daughters.

The labor of love film, the one film the director always wanted to make, has Garbus track down more than 100 hours of Simone recordings and the 25 hours of interviews she gave the co-writer of her autobiography. Also on display are the sometimes painful excerpts from her personal handwritten journals.

What the protective filmmaker fails to mention is her subjects use of Valium and the meds used to treat her bipolar disorder. We never learn what impact these drugs might have had on her life.

Nevertheless, even if not complete, this intense biopic is a fitting study on the very talented and gracious Miss Simone, one that should be well-received by the pianist and jazz singers many adoring fans.

What Happened, Miss Simone? Poster