Nina Simone wished she could downshift her singing career from artistic pursuit to mindless job, where it could be more about delivering sound than soul. She couldn't do it. Simone gave everything to her melodies, each syncopated, rambunctious, fully-charged musical numbers drenched in emotion. Whether the songs were about love, loss, or fighting for equality, they had to emerge from her heart, a task that took its toll on her mental and physical health over the years. Nina Simone remains one of the greatest performers who ever lived and it came at a price.
In What Happened, Miss Simone?, documentarian Liz Garbus (Bobby Fischer Against the World and Love, Marilyn) strings together never-before-seen archival footage, long-lost recordings, and talking head interviews with some of the singer's closest friends and family, to present an expansive look at Simone's life. The film debuted at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival this week.
Here's what we learned after soaking up the impassioned doc:
Simone Dreamed of Becoming the First Black Classical Pianist
Growing up in the 1940s, Simone honed her musical skills by playing piano for the local church. The hobby blossomed into a passion when the community raised money for Simone to learn classical concertos from a white teacher. “This Bach — I liked him!” she says in Garbus's film. From that point on, Simone strove to become the world's first black classical pianist, applying to Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music after high school. She was rejected based on her race. Steadfast, she wound up at New York City's Julliard School of Music.
She Changed Her Name to Avoid Offending Her Religious Mother
To earn a living, Simone played piano at a restaurant in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The job had one requirement: The keyboard tunes needed vocals. Hers. Adding singing to her repertoire, Simone played every type of music under the sun — jazz, blues, and classical all mixing together — evolving into her unique sound. Worried that her new career turn may offend her mother back home, the musician, originally born Eunice Waymon, changed her name to “Nina Simone,” a combination of the Spanish word for “little girl” and French actress Simone Signoret.
The Singer's Second Husband Was an Ex-NYPD Sergeant-Turned-Music Producer
Simone went from touring artist to emerging starlet after meeting, falling for, and marrying Andrew Stroud, a New York City cop who left everything to help manage the singer's act. In Garbus's film, the couple's daughter refers to Stroud as “the original Puff Daddy.” Stroud did it all, commodifying Simone's act and delivering the fame that she yearned to achieve, putting her up there with the Aretha Franklins of the world.
After Hitting It Big, Simone Made the Television Rounds — Including Hugh Hefner's Playboy's Penthouse
Simone's first album Little Girl Blue transcended expectations. In 1958, her cover of George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess number “I Love You Porgy” shot to the top of the Billboard charts. Suddenly, Simone was everywhere, playing jazz festivals and appearing on television. The film even finds an appearance on Hugh Hefner's short-lived Playboy's Penthouse, a fireside talk show meant to bump up the magazine's exposure. Get Smart actor Don Adams joined Hefner for Simone's soulful performance.
Business Pressures Kept Simone Hooked on Pills and Stuck in an Abusive Relationship
Since their financial lives depended on touring and record sales, Stroud pushed Simone along a rigorous schedule that slowly chipped away at her psyche. And her physical self. On top of her own substance abuse — “I take sleeping pills to sleep and yellow pills to play,” she wrote in a diary — Stroud became a violent monster behind closed doors. Simone's longtime guitarist Al Schackman recalls an evening when Simone rang him up at 5 a.m., pleading for a place to stay. During a night out at a disco, one of Simone's fans passed her a kind note, which Stroud mistook for something poisonous. Simone's husband reportedly beat her, tied her up, and put a gun to her head, before Simone walked out, holing up at Schackman's home for recovery. The relationship would go on for another decade.
Simone Performed “Mississippi Goddam” at the Selma, Alabama March
Fans of the recent docudrama Selma will recognize proud and horrifying moments from the Selma-to-Montgomery protest march that led to the Voting Rights Act's passing. A ferocious activist, Simone descended upon the town to perform for the protesters. A particularly stirring clip from the film shows the singer belting “Mississippi Goddam,” a Civil Rights-themed song written in the wake of Birmingham, Alabama bombing that killed four girls.
In the Late 1960s, Simone Was Neighbors with Malcolm X
Simone became entrenched in the Civil Rights Movement, taking on a militant persona in the face of Martin Luther King Jr.'s peaceful approach (according to the documentary, the singer once went up to MLK and declared “I am not non-violent!”). Film clips depict Simone in call-and-response songs with her audiences, asking whether they'd be ready to fight, kill, and die for the cause. She's quoted saying that if she had known how to use a gun, she would have used it to push back against the white oppressors (she didn't, so she stuck with music). So it's not surprising, while still being totally surprising, that for a brief period, Simone and Shroud lived next to Malcolm X and his wife, Betty Shabazz, in Mount Vernon, New York. Simone lived and breathed the Civil Rights Movement, and she was mad as Hell.
Crippled By Depression and Bipolar Disorder, Simone Found Herself Playing French Nightclubs for Chunk Change
Simone's life hit major turbulence in the '70s, when she fled America to Liberia and eventually Paris. At her lowest point, struggling for cash and looking “like a street urchin” (her friends' words), the musician managed just a few hundred dollars per gig playing for small French crowds in surrounding cafes. According to Simone, few people turned out for the shows. No one believed it was actually her, so why go? Time, medication, and rehab eventually revived the Simone that fans once knew, though her daughter believes the singer lost certain octaves, notes she never sang again, during this down period.