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The rise and fall of Nina Simone

From young pianist to jazz sensation – her life explored in a magnetic Netflix documentary

David Bennun | June 16th 2015

Most great artists have their legacy defined as much by their influence as by their output. Of those who do not, none is greater than Nina Simone. Her genius does not ring down the years in major work by successors. When fans speak of “the incomparable Nina Simone”, it is not simply a turn of phrase. Simone was sui generis, inimitable—although plenty have tried. They might as well have attempted to bottle lightning.

“What Happened, Miss Simone?”, a new documentary directed by Liz Garbus and released on Netflix, sheds some light on why this is so. It is well known that Simone was a classically trained pianist who turned to popular black music styles to earn a living. It is understood that this combination—relatively commonplace today, but rare in 1950s America—lies behind her sound. But these bare facts are inadequate to explain her uniqueness. It is in the detail, in Simone’s own words and the accounts of those who knew her, that we discover, as the title promises, what really happened.

As a little girl performing on the piano in her mother’s church, Simone—then Eunice Waymon—was heard by two white women: one who employed Eunice’s mother as a housemaid, the other a piano tutor. The first set up a fund for Eunice’s musical education, the second gave her lessons. The little girl who literally crossed the tracks into the terrifying white world for her tuition would thereafter never be fully at home in the black one, where she had scant time to play and was an object of curiosity.

In her debut novel, “The Bluest Eye”, the Nobel laureate Toni Morrison exposed the subconscious sense of ugliness and inferiority instilled in the most (as the contemporary term had it) “negroid” black girls by their distance from the white ideal of femininity. As Eunice Waymon reached womanhood, her heartstopping and unmistakably African beauty was a liability. A lighter, finer-featured girl with her talents might have stood some small chance of realising a fierce desire to become America’s first black woman concert pianist. But as Simone’s daughter, Lisa Celeste Stroud, notes, “Her nose was too big, her lips were too full and her skin was too dark.”

Rejected by Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute (because of her race, Simone always believed—a blow that would define her views for the rest of her life), and with her fund exhausted, she took up playing the piano in a New York bar, and sang along because otherwise she would have been fired. The result was an astonishing, happy accident born of bitter disappointment and plain necessity: a soul, jazz and blues player with prodigious classical technique, and a vocal style from out of church, out of history, out of the innermost human heart, out of nowhere.

Every moment of archive film in which Simone performs, or speaks, or moves, or stands, is magnetic. One of the particular pleasures of this documentary is how much Simone reveals of herself: in little-seen interview footage from the kind of arts and chat shows that flourished briefly on mainstream American television in the late 1960s and early 1970s; and in the pages of her journal, where she documented her joys with sardonic self-awareness (2 cars—1 nigger, 1 classy [PAID FOR, too]”) and her sorrows with an unflinching eye. Her obvious discomfort renders an early appearance on Hugh Hefner's short-lived television show, “Playboy’s Penthouse”—where she is presented, as so often happened with black entertainers, as if she had been let out of the kitchen for the evening—both riveting and excruciating to watch.

The same is true of what we see of her personal life. She married Andrew Stroud, a tough ex-cop she at first adored and of whom she later said, “He protected me against everybody but himself.” Stroud became her manager, built up her career, gave her a home and a child—and later abused her brutally. She felt hollowed out by her work schedule; she suffered bouts of savage depression; she became a creature of rage and violence herself. Salvation, of a sort, arrived with the civil-rights and black-power movements. Here was a cause that matched her fervour, channelled her fury and placed her among peers in talent and conviction. If Simone had had her way, she said, she would have been toting guns “down South...I would probably have been dead.” She became instead a campaigner and a politicised performer of supreme power, which all but killed her career as an entertainer. In the early 1970s she moved to Liberia, where the abused wife became a monster of a mother—so much so that her daughter eventually fled back to Stroud. We see her decline into poverty and mental illness in Switzerland and Paris, and her subsequent rescue by old friends and new, a mixed blessing which resurrected her career but came at a cost of its own. There is nothing about this that is not fascinating.

What we do not see, perhaps due to limitations of time and format, is any substantial account of her recorded work, which in its quality, variety and progression would merit an entire second film. So much of this music has been compiled repeatedly and shoddily (and without payment to her; she claimed she once tried to kill a record executive in a restaurant over this) that many of her magnificent studio and live albums are scandalously obscure. To be covered by Simone was something for another artist both to revere and to fear: almost any song she recorded became thereafter her own. She alone could improve on originals by the Bee Gees (“To Love Somebody”, “I Can’t See Nobody”), Judy Collins (“My Father”) or indeed herself (her sublime 1964 cut of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” was surpassed by another four years later). Even at her personal low ebb, she made the melancholy, beautiful 1978 album, “Baltimore”.

The tortured, broken woman never ceased to be an extraordinary artist. It’s a dichotomy best summarised by her daughter: “My mother was one of the greatest entertainers of all time. She was also a revolutionary. But when the show ended, everybody else went home and she was left alone, she was still fighting... She couldn’t live with herself, and everything fell apart.” 

What Happened, Miss Simone? Available on Netflix from June 26th

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