There's no question that it's been a pretty good period for music documentaries. Just when you thought that they were becoming more often than not tributes in granite, featuring little about the music and more about the artist's tenacity in surviving substance abuse and failure, a number of pictures have come along lately with real temperament and a sharp critical perspective on the work. Early on in the year, there was the engaging and informative The Wrecking Crew which may not have been strikingly innovative in its technique, but was touching in its generosity towards a group of musicians who had never really been publicly recognized before. Alex Gibney, who had already parted the curtain on the sinister machinations behind the Church of Scientology in his compelling and absorbing Going Clear, came up with two radically different musical portraits of James Brown (Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown) and Frank Sinatra (Sinatra: All or Nothing at All). In Mr. Dynamite, Gibney captured not only the thrilling showmanship in James Brown's music and the vibrant electricity of his live concerts, but in speaking to his band, the JB's, he was also able to plumb the strains and fragile bonds within the comradeship that fueled his meteoric rise to fame. By going to the roots of Brown's version of soul music, which combined funk with the ecstatic heights reached in the churches of black gospel, Gibney also made sense of Brown's complex connection to the black community. (Although he was a spiritual Godfather to dispossessed blacks, who felt even more disenfranchised after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., he was also a self-made entrepreneur and an exponent of black capitalism that would lead him to later support Richard Nixon.)
In Sinatra: All or Nothing at All, a four-hour two-part epic, Gibney not only defines the romantically heartsick persona Sinatra brilliantly cultivated in his long singing career, but he also draws a vividly rich portrait of Sinatra's life (which was as equally complex as James Brown's). But what made this movie truly innovative (and it was sustained for the full length of the picture) was the manner in which Gibney wove together Sinatra's voice-over commentary. Gibney didn't just conventionally pull his quotes from any one interview that Sinatra gave about his life and career, Instead he stitched together – sometimes sentence by sentence – a Sinatra reflection on his life that was constructed from remarks Frank made in different interviews over time. As if composing his own piece of music for Sinatra to perform, where the linearity of time magically becomes timeless, Gibney manufactures the rhythms of Sinatra's speaking voice and then runs it parallel to his singing one.
Now in the new Netflix documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone?, director Liz Garbus performs a beautifully cadenced balancing act that negotiates the troubling episodes that dogged singer Nina Simone's life while also unveiling her invaluable contributions to popular music – contributions that in songs like Rodgers and Hart's "Little Girl Blue," George Gershwin's "I Love You, Porgy," and Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell on You," fused the classical counter-point stylings of Bach with traditional gospel and rhythm and blues. Her regal formalism which boldly contrasted with her fiery self-determination would later influence performers like Joni Mitchell, as much as her contralto singing style would be adopted and transformed by such artists as Pete Townshend, Antony Hegarty and Alicia Keys. Unlike the jazz and soul singers who would give in to the torrents of emotional power found in the music's gospel roots and then express the sheer joy they experienced in the freedom they found, Nina Simone always sounded trapped by the shades of blue she saw tucked in the corners of those songs she chose to cover. When she sang "Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood,"it didn't have the crying plea that Eric Burdon of The Animals once gave it, as if the love he sought and trusted might just free him from the trappings of the working-class life he lived. Simone takes to the track as if the wounds of rejection had already consumed her and she was letting you in at what was gnawing at her bones. Unlike Bessie Smith, whose passionately sexual voice had the alchemy of healing within it (something that Aretha Franklin would herself find in soul), Nina Simone defined the pain that lay in sensual desire and articulated the cost it could exact. She didn't invoke Billie Holiday exactly, who took sexual pleasure from pain and rejection, but instead brought out the tension between desire and rejection. By doing so, her songs would simmer and slowly boil. There was a rage under the surface of her stately presentations which gave them both drama and suspense.
In What Happened, Miss Simone?, Liz Garbus provides the story that perfumed those performances and informed what we came to hear in Simone's artistry. Drawing on interviews with Simone (who died of breast cancer in 2003), her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, her former husband and manager, Andrew Stroud, her guitar accompanist and musical director Al Schackman, and even Simone's diary entries, Garbus's film bears witness to the life of a disturbed and talented singer whose work didn't help her transcend her struggles. In the film, we see how she came to define those trials (or in the case of her incendiary civil-rights song "Mississippi Goddam,"which was her response to the murder of Medgar Evers and the bombing of the church in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four black children, find an outlet for her anger and outrage). Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon, in Tryon, North Carolina, she was the sixth of eight children. Coming from a poor black family who turned to the local church for comfort, Nina Simone (who would later take her name from both French actress Simone Signoret, who she'd seen in the 1952 film, Casque d'or, and niña which means 'little girl' in Spanish) began playing the piano at age three. Besides performing gospel standards in her church, like "God Be With You, Till We Meet Again,"she would be also be drawn to classical music and gave her first recital at the age of twelve. (During that performance, we discover, her parents were made to sit in the back of the fall to provide room for the white audience. But Simone would not perform until her parents were allowed back to the front row.) Garbus reveals how Simone wanted to be a classical pianist who with the help of scholarship money got to hire a private tutor to further her studies. With a fund later provided by her family and community, she sought entry into the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, but was rejected because of her race. In the film, Garbus makes clear that not only did this rejection inadvertently build a bridge for her into popular music, it was a key to understanding the rage that seethed under the Lady Blue regalia.
As the film makes clear, Simone's anger was not only directed towards a racist society, but it was also an anger that turned to depression. By the time she married Andrew Stroud, Garbus through interviews and diary entries shows how he became her nemesis. Much like Colonel Parker with Elvis, Stroud completely controlled her artistic life but he also brutalized her violently when she didn't conform to his wishes. (The interviews here with Stroud were from another source in 2006. He died in 2012.) Garbus, however, stops short at portraying Simone as simply the victim of abuse, she shows as well how Simone became an abuser herself, to her daughter, her musicians and even her fans. The violence might have consumed Simone completely had it not been for the Civil Rights movement which politicized her. But as the movement turned more radical towards the end of the Sixties, it drew out the violence within her. (In one scene, she tells Martin Luther King Jr., “I am not non-violent.” He replies with a wry humour, "You don't have to be.") Although Nina Simone would eventually leave her husband and leave the United States, which she came to loathe after King's assassination and (at the suggestion of her friend singer Miriam Makeba) would move to Liberia, she first looked to Lorraine Hansberry's unfinished play, To Be Young Gifted and Black, to create her most exultant Civil Rights song, "Young, Gifted and Black" (which both Aretha Franklin and Donny Hathaway would do full justice to in the Seventies). After many years in a self-imposed exile, Simone would eventually turn up in France to revitalize a career that had floundered, and to finally confront the demons that had been crippling her for so long.
While there's a lot packed in What Happened, Miss Simone?, the documentary never feels overwhelmingly dense because Liz Garbus establishes a late night rhythm that moves comfortably with the many Simone tracks we hear on the soundtrack. Sometimes it's hard to separate the artist's personal life from their work (especially when one has little to do with the other) because the mass audience is always primed to level the playing field. They want to see that the artist can suffer just like the rest of us despite their genius. But sometimes there is a connection between those two worlds that deepen our responses to their work – especially when we see how much of the artist's life might actually inform it. For Nina Simone, she built a home for her defiance, her pain and her rage in the tunes she chose to interpret. Her songbook could probably serve as an unofficial memoir to the one she did write (I Put a Spell On You in 1993). What Liz Garbus does in What Happened, Miss Simone? is weave a melodically doleful, yet riveting tapestry, about an artist for whom melody and song seldom brought harmony into her life.
– Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams, 33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.