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Tuesday, September 1, 2015
Liz Garbus | What Happened, Miss Simone?
it finally comes down to reality
by Douglas Messerli
Liz Garbus (director) What Happened, Miss Simone? / 2015
As Maya Angelou pondered in conversation—“What Happened, Miss Simone?”—so too have many others of us in the US who lived through the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s loving the music and voice of the “the High Priestess of Soul” also wondered. Her contralto voice and classically-inspired playing was so memorable that its sudden disappearance from the American scene (despite numerous late recordings of performances in Holland, Switzerland, and elsewhere) seemed incomprehensible.
Through Liz Garbus’ 2015 film, produced with Lisa Simone Kelly, Simone’s daughter, we now discern that there was no one event that happened in the great singer’s life to bring her down—or, at least, to take her away from her American audience. Rather, nearly everything in her life conspired against this seemingly strong yet ultimately fragile being.
Poverty and race certainly are very high on list of levelers in Simone’s (born Eunice Aymon) life. As a young North Carolina girl, daughter to a Methodist minister and housemaid, Eunice clearly showed talent for playing the piano, and a local white piano teacher provided free lessons to her, the young girl “crossing over” the railroad tracks to a life which kept her apart from her own community while promising her a world as a classical pianist that would always remain just out of her reach.
Although her audition for acceptance to the Curtis Institute of Music went well, the very fact of her color barred her from entrance. Instead she moved to New York to attend the Julliard School of Music. But in New York she soon ran out of money for her studies and was forced to begin playing in a small nightclub which quickly also demanded that she sing. Not wanting to arouse the wrath of her church-going mother, she took the name Nina Simone (from the Spanish niña (little girl) and actress Simone Signoret, whom she’s admired in the film Casque d’or).
So remarkable was her playing that she quickly developed local fans, playing in Greenwich Village and elsewhere, and by 1958, after marrying Don Ross (described generally as a beatnik) she rose to the top 20 on Billboard’s list for her song “I Loves You, Porgy,” sung in a manner that can hardly be compared to the operatic ballad. Hit records followed, and in 1961 another soon-to-be disaster hit her in the form of her second husband, a former policeman, Andrew Stroud—who may be described as successfully managing her career, if you can dismiss the facts that, despite a young daughter at home, he nearly worked his wife to death and regularly beat her.
It is apparent from Garbus’ film that the violence that surrounded her, in some respects, came also from within. Simone was secretly diagnosed for bipolar disorder, and later physically abused her own daughter.
Moreover, Simone lived through turbulent times, becoming, understandably, involved in the civil rights issues of 1964-1974, with its own waves of cultural unrest and violent outbursts of racial hate. With the death of Medgar Evers and the bombing of the Birmingham, Alabama church that killed four children, Simone thoroughly immersed herself in the cause, writing and singing the passionately wrought “Mississippi Goddam”—words that had never before been sung on record, let alone by a woman—that resulted in a boycott of her records throughout many parts of the South.
As with so many others like her, it became apparent to Simone, even if she did eventually perform in Carnegie Hall (not, however, as she had dreamt as the first black classical pianist, but as a great singer of jazz, blues and soul music), that the US was no longer a world in which she could best express her talents. Particularly, after withholding taxes in reaction to her political concerns and sought out by the IRS for back payment, she finally left her husband and her country for Africa.
But there, without management she was also without money. Moves to Switzerland and Paris only exacerbated the situation, and she finally came to live almost as a street person until she was rescued by friends, and moved to Holland.
This moving film, revealing so many reasons for Simone’s “disappearance’ and downfall, is at the same time a testament—just through its numerous clips from Simone’s nearly always awesome performances—to the singer and player’s powerful strengths, to her fortitude and determination to refuse to molded into a pleasing trinket on the white shelf of beloved performers.
Simone was never, not once, simply a “pleasing” or even “exquisite” performer. She was a raw, guttural, intensely gifted phenomenon who, as she herself put it, hypnotized her audiences, pounding out Bach while belching out the blues, gently tinkling a love song while screeching out a personal exhortation for those who tortured her heart. Simone was never one being at a time, or, as her daughter puts it, she was never the kind of performer who came on stage to act out the role of a gifted songstress and left another. Simone, the pained and tortured human being, was always right there along with the challenging singer, player, and fierce lover of the audiences who simply couldn’t give back as much as she needed.
Los Angeles, September 1, 2015