Stream This: The Artist as Troubled Revolutionary in WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE?

     July 23, 2015


[Editor’s Note: Welcome to Stream This, our weekly feature where we single out television programs and movies of considerable merit that are available on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Crackle, or other streaming services. Look for a new recommendation from Stream This every week.]

Excuse my absence from Steam This – a move out of NYC and a working trip to Comic-Con took up quite a lot of July for me. It’s also the reason its taken me this long to sit down with What Happened, Miss Simone?, the Sundance-anointed documentary from the quite talented Liz Garbus, who crafted the hugely entertaining and insightful Bobby Fischer Against the World back in 2011. In that film, the director traced the entanglements of preternatural genius and mental disease in the American chess master, bringing out the inner war that both drove and ultimately destroyed Fischer. She does something similar in What Happened, Miss Simone?, though the uglier elements of Simone’s persona aren’t backed up with footage the way Fischer’s anti-semitism and bigotry were. Lacking a more visceral presentation of the singer’s demons, Garbus’s latest does something arguably all the more  provocative and complex by presenting the brilliant musician and singer as an equally striking civil rights figure and a leader in the realm of radical politics.


Image via Netflix

Like Alex Gibney‘s extraordinary Mr. Dynamite, which focused on James Brown‘s career and his support of conservative politics, What Happened, Miss Simone? alternates between dazzling displays of Simone’s abilities as a prodigious pianist and a singer of stunning versatility and effectiveness and a myriad of fragments from her personal life. There’s a good chunk of time devoted to her abusive relationship with husband Andrew Stroud, with audio tape of Simone describing the relationship to an interviewer and pages of her diary cut together to show a largely unchanged honesty in private and public life. Beyond that, however, this sequence highlights her anger and feuding nature, an attraction to warlike, violent attitudes that match (and occasionally dominate) her ferocity. This is later diagnosed as a likely outcome of Simone’s manic depression, which also leads her to beat and berate her daughter, but is also part of why she proved so brave as a performer, and a colleague of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Garbus does not seek to question the roots of Simone’s outrage, as the murder of Evers and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing do not require anything but their existence to summon fury. Rather, the filmmaker seeks to chart how art and cerebral exercises can at once relieve and exasperate such disorders as manic depression, how the beauty and precision of a troubled artist’s work often cloaks a more temperamental, lacerating inner life. Through talking-head interviews with her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, close friend and band musician Al Schackman, and Stroud, among others, Garbus gets a plethora of glimpses into Simone’s work process, her bracingly direct political beliefs and actions, and her concerning, uncontrollable fits of depression and anger. The assemblage itself is a bit straightforward, lacking in a tighter, more thematically focused visual style, but her choice in material is lean, effective, and consistently fascinating, and irrefutably packed with great music.


Image via Netflix

Toward the end, when Garbus comes to Simone’s later years in Africa and as an international performer, one can still sense a mind of boundless invention and meticulous, detail-oriented talent underneath a late rendition of “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” fueled by the same restlessness that caused her to write “Mississippi Goddamn.” In these moments, I was reminded of a story from another remarkable, recent music documentary, 20,000 Days on Earth, centered on the great singer-songwriter Nick Cave, wherein Cave talks about a concert where he opened for Simone; it involves the singer ordering champagne, cocaine, and sausages before performing. Despite the humor that Cave sees in these requests, what he remembers so clearly is her complete and utter domination of the stage and the area in which she was performing. That same sort of unyielding spirit is evident in every frame of What Happened, Miss Simone?, and the filmmaker gives a convincing answer to the not-exactly-easy question of the title.

 What Happened, Miss Simone? is currently streaming on Netflix.