PARK CITY, Utah — She walked stoically, and with purpose, to her piano. She sat down and took in her live audience, her eyes fixated on them sternly, almost as if she needed to approve of them before she spoke her first words, played her first notes, sang her first song.
This was Nina Simone. And her audience — for this particular performance, anyway — loved every bit of what she gave them.
At long last, here’s an introduction to a legendary performer we’re all yearning to learn so much more about. And her story unfolds with some of the most unimaginable pain.
There have been many attention-grabbing headlines about the singer in the last few years, largely about how her life would (or should) play out in a film, or speculating about which Simone viewers would meet on screen. Would it be the woman who painstakingly belted out deep contralto vocals of love gone right, wrong, or amiss? Or would we meet the woman who was inspired by civil rights political activism but eventually hit a wall, decided enough was enough, and — some might say— took things a bit too far, costing her the crossover audience she’d successfully built? Or would we learn about the last few years of her life, and how she died lonely at the age of 70?
Thanks to Liz Garbus’ excellent documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?, which premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival last week and will be available on Netflix later this year, we finally get to see Simone — who was born Eunice Waymon — as she saw herself. Complicated. Talented. Misunderstood. Passionate. Underrated.
Garbus, a two-time Academy Award nominee, was up for the challenge, untangling the resistance of those close to the singer, and getting them to open up and reveal intimate details of her life. Interest in telling Simone’s story has existed for quite some time: Nearly eight years ago Mary J. Blige was cast in the role, and more recently Zoe Saldana starred in a feature film that only a few have seen. But completing any project about the life of Nina Simone has been a difficult task to pull off; her estate and those in her inner circle are fiercely defensive. Garbus said this particular film came to her in 2013:
“There had been a lot of Nina Simone projects that had been discussed and talked about, and the family felt like it was time to let go and let a documentary finally happen and give it their blessing,” she said in an interview with BuzzFeed News. “Nina Simone’s daughter — I mean, what person could see all of their family’s laundry up on screen and not object and quibble on this? She gave me no notes. She said, ‘We’ve done Mommy proud. Go Liz.’ That was amazing. It’s a testament to her strength, coming to terms with the type of parent she had.”
The director also was able to convince Simone’s longtime lead guitarist and confidant, Al Schackman, to participate in the documentary. He’d declined other such offers, but said that learning Garbus had no agenda made him eventually cave.
“It took a bit of time. I was reluctant at first. And gradually Liz got through to me,” he said in an interview with BuzzFeed News. “I saw the importance of it. I saw that this was the time to let go and share and not guard Nina’s legacy. And I’m glad I did. I was right in letting go.”
After Garbus was able to break through barriers and eliminate doubts like Schackman’s, she tapped into details of Simone’s life that haven’t been largely discussed, like her late-in-life bipolar diagnosis.
“I feel like there are like six different camps of people’s opinions and takes and visions of Nina. Whenever you’d call someone up, they’d be looking at us like,What camp are you from? And I’m like, We’re from camp Nina. We’re Switzerland. We just want to hear it all. We’re truth gatherers. That’s what we’re doing. People were really suspicious,” Garbus said. “I … wanted to get to know Nina. But it was really, really difficult. People have such protective feelings of her. I had to prove myself each time. But I felt like, I’m your conduit. In all of those truths, is the real Nina. She’s in there.”
Schackman has a strong feeling his longtime friend and collaborator would approve of the final product.
“I think she would be delighted,” he said, before pausing and chuckling a bit. Then he added, “She would say, ‘Yeah, that’s me!’”