What Happened, Miss Simone? directed by Liz Garbus

I heard rave reviews about What Happened, Miss Simone? at Sundance this year, but I didn’t get to see it at the time. As luck would have it, KRCL and the SLC Library brought it back for a free screening in Salt Lake. The producer, Amy Hobby, took questions from KRCL’s Eugenie Hero Jaffe. So, that was fun!

But, the film. The film. Nina Simone wasn’t on my radar until maybe five or six years ago, when someone posted a video of her performance of “I’ve Got Life” on Facebook. I watched it many times and got a few of her cds and now it’s a part of my life. I sing her songs with some frequency.

The film creates an arc and fall for her life, which was certainly messier and less clear in the living. She was dedicated to the piano at a young age. This dedication ran parallel to extreme oppression, where any wrong move could lead to abuse or even death by lynching. No wonder a small child would cling to something, anything—perfection. She was poised to be the first black concert pianist. She ended up paying the bills by performing in night clubs. One thing lead to another, and she became the preeminent jazz and blues singer of her era and beyond.

As the civil rights movement picked up, so too did her purpose. Her songs became more political. Her artistic passion and creativity flourished like never before, but her music was banned by many stations and venues that did not want to be political. The film outlines her tumultuous relationship with her husband, her relationship with her daughter. The film also reveals her struggle with bipolar disorder, which she dealt with at a time when very little was known about it (even less so than now).

I’m sure she was successful because most people feel the same way, but I really relate to Nina Simone. It’s not just that I’m practicing piano these days. There’s something about watching the slow steady rage building in her throughout this film that seems so very human, and so very understandable. When you have the luxury of not feeling rage, it can seem silly to outsiders. Once it begins to build within you, expressing it in any sort of effective way is nearly impossible.

The rage happens when you begin to feel less free. Like when suddenly, in very real ways, you are losing legal control over what happens to your body, and others lose control over what happens to their bodies, when you feel limited in your ability to move around in the world. Of course we limit our freedoms in various ways, which takes a lifetime to work through, but when others do the harm, that is hard to bear.

The rage happens when you are cracked open by love and that makes you capable of much deeper intensity than ever before. It’s all very thrilling and terrifying, and some people call it bipolar, and some people call it art, and they are not the same, but there is a shared relationship to control, creating, being, and doing things…differently.

Simone works, and works hard, to translate her rage into something useful, into art, into commentary relevant to the time period. She does this beautifully. Like good theory, the music and lyrics sometimes seem deceivingly simple, but build and grow in their complexity until you are moved to something completely new.

Leaving the film, I felt renewed. What might I do with my own moods, my own passions? How might I better express myself creatively? How might I create? I have some ideas. I do.

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