One interesting thing about being an artist is the dichotomy that exists between producing one’s art and then performing or releasing it for audiences to experience. Much of the time, the production of the art comes from a place of isolation and comfort-seeking. The performance aspect then sometimes comes as a need to support oneself, as in the case of Nina Simone, the classically trained pianist, who was forced to sing and perform other styles of music to support herself financially.
Something for which we will always thank her.
What Happened, Miss Simone? follows the life of the illustrious Nina Simone who was revered as an exceptionally talented singer, pianist, and civil rights activist. She put everything she had into her music and it showed. Like many artists, her portrayal is often tragic, but she was more than just a “tortured artist,” she was a dynamo.
Many things came to mind as I watched this film, directed by Liz Garbus and released in 2015. As a musician, I am always interested in observing the way famous musicians and artists are treated and portrayed in the media. Oftentimes their lives are far more nuanced than are the images we are offered of them, but this documentary, which opened the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and went onto be nominated for the Academy Award, does an admirable job of showing the viewer as much of the artist’s dynamic life as possible in an hour and forty minutes.
What happens when the spotlight becomes just too much for someone? Once producing art becomes someone’s livelihood, is it then their responsibility to keep making and performing their art for audiences, even when it’s hurting them? And what is our responsibility to artists, like Nina Simone, who may be affected by mental illness? These are just some of the questions I asked myself after watching this film.
It is important to remember Simone as not just as an artist, but as an activist as well. She was a black woman songstress living during the middle of the Civil Rights movement, who joined forces with many of the other key leaders of the movement, including Malcolm X, Betty Shabazz, and Martin Luther King. She was never quiet about who she was and how her black identity shaped her life and the lives of those she loved. I was pleased to see this aspect was not left out.
To see a musician portrayed as genuinely as they experience life, is rare in the media, but this documentary is successful at showing us the true Nina Simone. She was a star in her own right, and made her presence timelessly known. But only she truly knows “what happened,” as the title asks.