Liz Garbus’s current Best Documentary Oscar nomination for “What Happened, Miss Simone?” (the DGA and International Documentary Association Award-nominated Nina Simone film, the first project Netflix ever bought from a pitch) only came about thanks to her previous Best Documentary Oscar nominee (1998’s “The Farm: Angola USA”).
“Radical Media put together a list of directors for Nina’s family, and her daughter Lisa Simone’s husband responded to my name, because ‘The Farm’ stuck with him,” Garbus told TheWrap awards editor Steve Pond Wednesday at Los Angeles’ The Landmark theater for TheWrap’s Screening Series.
Garbus wasn’t sure at first whether there was a movie in the life of Simone, a dirt-poor Carolina girl who hit the Top 20 with Gershwin’s “I Loves You, Porgy” in 1958, sang her shocking protest song “Mississippi Goddam” at the Selma civil-rights march and spiraled into bipolar illness and poverty, yet inspired everyone from Martin Luther King to David Bowie to Beyonce at the Super Bowl.
“There are great artists and then there are great artists with great stories, and I didn’t know in which category she fell,” said Garbus, who soon found phenomenal stories in the vast archive of Simone performances, plus the singer’s reminiscences captured on 90 frail old microcassettes, which the director spent six months tracking down.
“The revelations started right at the beginning,” Garbus said. “Her every waking hour was spent at the piano with this dream to become the first female classical concert pianist at Carnegie Hall, and it seemed to be within reach.” Traumatized by rejection from the Curtis Institute, which Simone interpreted as racist (probably falsely), the singer was painfully disappointed when her Carnegie Hall debut as a jazz genius did not fulfill that driven early dream. She did not want to be the High Priestess of Soul, as she was called. In the film, she says she’d have been happier as a non-singing classical pianist.
“You can re-understand every time she walks out onstage her attitude to the audience and her struggle within herself, to reconcile where she is and who she is with the box that she’s put in,” said Garbus. “And then she broke out of that box.”
Notoriously, Simone berated audiences who dared to be noisier than a symphony audience, walked out on shows, and shot at people with guns for minor or imagined offenses. “In her mind, this is what their behavior should be,” said Garbus. “But it was also great theater — people loved going to see her not just because they loved to hear her music live but because you never knew what kind of show it would be, what would happen.”
While rivals like Aretha Franklin were wooing and wowing crossover crowds, Simone plunged into startlingly harsh yet gorgeous political music during the 1960s civil rights struggle — and her 1978 song “Baltimore” resurfaced after Baltimore’s 2015 crisis over Freddie Gray’s shooting by police. “She was radical, and speaking truth so blatantly. She’s just so relevant–people are still looking at her as this model of the engaged artist activist,” said Garbus. “She did not keep her other foot in her commercial career [like Franklin, Belafonte and others]. She put it all on the other side [political action music]. She put it on the map, and the map was thrown out. But it was also her choice to go all in.”
Garbus structured the film with songs that express the emotions of each period in Simone’s life, some of them strikingly unexpected. “Every song had a narrative function, it’s not just a soundtrack,” said the director. “I Loves You, Porgy” perfectly sets up her tormented yet productive marriage to the domineering cop-turned-manager Andy Stroud. Later in life, after she fled to Africa, the Caribbean and France, where she was broke and literally singing for supper in a tiny club, Simone sang Janis Ian’s “Stars” with a devastatingly original interpretation. “She filled it with so much pain, it’s so personal,” said Garbus. “If you listen to her cover of Dylan’s ‘Just Like a Woman,’ she’s personalizing and changing these great artists’ songs.” No singer of Brecht-Weill’s “Pirate Jenny” sounded more convincing fantasizing about her enemies’ deaths, and when she recorded Ian’s tune, she angrily demanded that Ian pay her for the privilege.
Simone’s life had too much madness to fit into Garbus’s exquisitely wrought film — and after all, it’s Simone’s sanity, her art, that lasts — but there’s plenty of pain anyway, especially in the scenes featuring the singer’s beautiful daughter Lisa, whom Simone beat and traumatized as a child yet inspires as an adult. Lisa Simone waited decades for a filmmaker who could capture the complexity of her parents. “She came to this extraordinary place of forgiveness without erasure, without denial,” said Garbus. “A month before we went to Sundance [in the same opening-night music slot previously reserved for Oscar winners “Searching for Sugar Man” and “Twenty Feet From Stardom”], I Fed Ex’d the film to her, and three hours later I got an email from her: ‘I did a little dance around the room.'”
For all the poignance of the film’s later scenes, when Simone’s gift is impaired by bipolar-fighting drugs like Trilafon, it strikes a happier note than it might have if had included more of the singer’s out-of-control sex life, self-thwarting abuse of others and death at 70 from breast cancer. “It was sad, she was really alone,” said Garbus. “I was thinking about my audience — do I want to wallop them again? There were many affairs I didn’t go into, really because of the time and the story structure.”
Besides, Simone’s long, defiantly strange and persistent career isn’t just a record of misery. “There’s joy in that even though it was a tough road for her and she never had any money,” said Garbus. “Somebody said that among the Oscar-nominated documentaries, we were the happy story. OK, I guess this is the happy documentary!”