One of the nastiest tricks the bastards ever played was to convince so many artists that it's best never to be strident. In the name of aesthetics or audience-pleasing or just not wanting to come off as shrill, a great many artists deny themselves—and their art—both their full range of feeling and the chance to aid in the effecting of change. Popular songs in the coming months may mourn and honor the dead at Charleston's Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, but will any star cry truth the way Nina Simone might have? Will anyone dare a “South Carolina Goddam”?
Simone's “Mississippi Goddam,” from 1964, is a grimly jaunty show tune, an uneasy experiment in which the song's form is almost torched by its own blazing content. Over a ramshackle shuffle of piano and guitar, Simone's indignation at outrages historical and then-current—in particular the murders of Medgar Evers in Mississippi and the four young girls in that Birmingham church—is at brilliant odds with the arrangement's show-biz flourishes. Between choruses, she rails at the institutions that had for so long punished black Americans, each charge in her litany fresh and raw and wearily familiar.
In recordings of live performances, she seems struck anew by the enormity of the crimes that she's reporting, so carried away with grief and anger that, when she consents to leap up into that chorus, the feeling of defiance is matched by relief: A song, like a country, can't hold so much injustice for long, and it really helps to shout about it.
So, stridency may not necessarily harm art, but it rarely does much good for artists trying to survive in a world hostile to principled passion. “She got sidetracked with all these civil rights activities,” complains Simone's onetime husband/manager Andrew Stroud in Liz Garbus's timely, arresting documentary. (The film premieres on Netflix June 26.) For him, her art was a business. As Simone became more outspoken in the early 1960s, she became harder to book. But she also felt she had found a calling greater even than her earliest wish, to be the first black American woman to play classical piano at Carnegie Hall: “I could sing to help my people,” she says in the film, “and that became the mainstay of my life.”
Tragically, what she sang and spoke for her people still needs to be sung and spoken today. The doc never feels more of-our-moment than when an interviewer asks Simone to define her idea of freedom. Her answer is immediate. “I'll tell you what freedom is to me—no fear!” Here's her diagnosis, in the '60s, of her mission: “American society is nothing but a cancer, and it must be exposed before it can be cured.” Elsewhere, onstage, she observes, “They're shooting us down one by one—don't forget that.” And Al Shackman, her longtime guitar player and musical director, offers up a story that speaks to tensions that still roil today: “She walked right up to Dr. King and said, 'I'm not nonviolent!'”
Garbus knows that the best films about musicians—recently, Get On Up! and Love & Mercy—are about presence and music and unknowable personal complexities rather than redemptive arcs and pat explanations. Music carries What Happened, Miss Simone?, pop and jazz and art-songs touched with Bach-informed formalism, heard here over wonderful vintage photos and clips. There's “Mississippi,” of course, and “Little Girl Blue,” “Little Liza Jane,” “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” and the great “Nobody's Fault But Mine,” a blues so lowdown beautiful it inspires you to haul yourself back up.
And Garbus gives us time with Simone, opening the film with the musician at her steeliest. It's 1976, and she's taking the stage at the Montreux after eight years out of public life. For long, thrilling seconds—then minutes—she stares out at the audience in silence, face set and stern, taking their measure, making it clear she's not entirely set on being there: Her people still suffered in what she called “the United Snakes of America,” and she's putting on a show at a Euro jazz festival?
Then, at her piano, she breaks into a smile. Again, as on those “Mississippi Goddam” choruses, it's performing, entertaining, and connecting that offers relief.
Simone's daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, says in new interviews in the film that Simone brought that onstage intensity to all aspects of her life, including parenting—and that living like that came with a great price. The doc isn't shy: Simone and Stroud each accuse the other of abuse, with him alleging that she subjected him to “sex attacks”; Kelly reports that, after her parents' divorce, Simone picked up Stroud's habit of hitting her. We see blunt, bracing excerpts from Simone's diaries, including her daily reports on whether or not she managed to get some sex. Those journal entries have a desperate poetry that echoes Simone's lyrics: “Every night in these filthy rotten holes called dressing rooms through the years I've wasted away to almost nothing.” And in the letter in which she ended her marriage, she penned a sentence that could kick off a sequel to “Nobody's Fault”: “I ain't got nothing to give, Andy.”
The dirty laundry never feels exploitative. Garbus' film is a portrait of a soul torn apart by forces beyond it and within it. Kelly movingly describes the realization, as an adult, that her mother most likely was manic-depressive—that as Simone fought the world, mostly alone, she also fought herself, without aid. In the '70s, doctors medicated Simone, freeing her up to perform for a few years, and possibly smoothing away some of her most dangerous edges. Garbus is too smart to link, directly, Simone's possible diagnosis with her most inflammatory statements, those times when the anger overwhelmed her artistry. There she is, onstage, as the '60s crashed around her, asking her audience, “Are you ready to smash white things? To burn buildings?”
And: “Are you ready to kill if necessary?”
We shudder at this. But as black Americans continue to be murdered, one by one, it's worth marveling that talk like that is so rare. Perhaps great, strident art, like Simone's best, helps get such hurting out. If art can make sublimity out of suffering, this world might be worth saving.