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Sundance 2015 Review: What Happened, Miss Simone?


The troubled life of complex jazz chanteuse Nina Simone is given an immersive exploration in documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone? which premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival.

Director Liz Garbus provides us with a glimpse into the singer's troubling personal battles from mental health issues to the damaging effect of an abusive husband - whilst also going on to detail her persona as a performer and commitment to Civil Rights causes.

Using a mix of talking head interviews, captivating archive performances, and rarely heard audio recordings, Garbus compiles a somewhat detailed and refreshingly intimate reflection of Simone's life. Opening with Simone on stage at the Montreux jazz festival in 1976, we see a gifted yet undeniably awkward and unnerving figure - Garbus then backtracks to Simone's early life and career and presents some of the dark factors that shaped the enigmatic performer.

Initially showcasing Simone's talents as a classical pianist, What Happened, Miss Simone?, gradually details her struggle to gain acceptance due to her race and the feelings of pain, rejection, and isolation that affected her. These feelings appeared to be initially healed by the arrival of Simone's husband-turned-manager, Andrew Stroud, in a whirlwind of heated romance, which would gradually turn into one of pain, violence and resentment. Harrowing in tone and deeply personal (thanks to Simone's bleak diary entries), the documentary chilling discusses the abuse and sexual violence that would soon become commonplace in this relationship.

There is a real unnerving quality about the Simone's bleak life and Garbus captures the strain that these factors contributed to her mental health issues. The fiery, complex and brooding persona of the performer is further captured in her vitriolic anger towards the injustice caused by the white man during the Civil Rights movement. Archive footage of the riots and hose-downs still produce a stomach-churning horror and capture the atmosphere of political and social unrest, whilst giving us a glimpse into Simone's passionate spirit. This passion would be channelled into the singer's musical output which subsequently struggled to reach the same audience as prior hits like I Love You Porgy - due to its racially-charged subject matter.

The harrowing power of Simone's ongoing battles are carefully complimented by archive performances which showcase the tormented genius at the heart of the film. Her sharp, uncompromising personality continues onto the stage - seen in sequences where she yells at an audience member to sit down during one of her numbers. Although Simone's music is integrated throughout, Garbus neglects to delve into the creation process behind any of the singer's works with the technical musical back-story behind many of her tracks going unexplored.

What Happened, Miss Simone? is a well-crafted and generally immersive glimpse into the troubled life of Nina Simone. Whilst it is continually interesting, Garbus could have presented more of a celebration surrounding the performer's talents instead of something so tonally bleak.

3.5/5.0
What Happened Miss Simone 1465849554015821956
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