‘What Happened, Miss Simone?’
Every great artist deserves a Great Artist doc, and the life of musician Nina Simone offers the usual doc grist: a genius equaled by turbulence in her personal life, which turmoil often bled into her songs. But the demons that haunted Simone weren’t the usual kind. Simone was a classical pianist who found herself crashing the charts with her eccentric twist on jazz/soul, her barreling, gravelly alto jibing with her pulsating piano work. When the Civil Rights Era kicked into full swing, this unlikely (and reluctant) star found herself turning increasingly political, eventually disappearing from the scene altogether.
Director Liz Garbus doesn’t exactly suggest Simone’s politics getting in the way of her success is a bad thing, but she doesn’t quite know how to handle these and other tricky subjects. Simone recording “Mississippi Goddam” in the wake of the murder of Medgar Evers and the Birmingham church bombing is given appropriate fire, but Garbus tiptoes around her call for violent revolution, plus her later abuse of her daughter. “What Happened, Miss Simone?” gets the job done, and it buys into the current, highly welcome trend of favoring rich archival footage over dull talking heads. But it also emerges onto a scene now fresh with music docs — namely “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” and “Amy” — that get in close with troubled subjects, attempting an intimacy over mere Wikipedia factoids. Garbus keeps her distance yet she’s still in over her head.