What Happened, Miss Simone? | Documentary Review

Photo courtesy of the Sundance Institute

In the opinion of many, Nina Simone was one of the greatest female voices music has ever heard. A unique style matched by none, Simone has been credited as an influence by many of today’s modern artists. The documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?, directed by Liz Garbus, takes a look at the life and times of the accomplished pianist, singer, and civil rights advocate through rare footage, diaries, letters, audiotapes, and interviews with those closest to her. What I found stood out most about this documentary was the volatile and unpredictable side of Simone many had never heard of nor seen before. 

While the documentary celebrates the artistic icon the public eye was familiar with, it also paints viewers a darker portrait of the unpredictable mental state of Simone. From an early age, it was clear that Simone was destined to be a star. Raised as a classically trained pianist, it wasn't until the Twenties that the world first heard the amazing voice which garnered unwavering admiration. The documentary also highlights the mental and physical abuse that Simone sustained from her tumultuous relationship with her husband-turned-manager, Andrew Stroud. This volatile relationship, showcased through documented letters and diary entries, gives the viewer a more clear understanding of Simone's treacherous and emotional road through life.

The mental abuse and strained relationships led Simone to a life of struggles with addiction and a constant fight with the demons within. These battles carried over into her music, and later in life the fuel for these inner-personal struggles would come from rage built by the Civil Rights Movement. Songs such as “Mississippi Goddamn” showcase honest feelings toward the world around her in a gut-wrenching outcry. A true eye opener, What Happened, Miss Simone? is a moving tell-all piece about the life of one of music's most beloved icons of the 20th century. Garbus leads us on a journey through every moment of the singer’s struggles, yet complements it with just the right amount of celebration of Simone's achievements, making it one of my must-see documentaries from this year's Sundance Film Festival.