“What Happened, Miss Simone”
Directed by Liz Garbus
As I’ve stated before, as a rule, feature documentaries fall in to one of the following three categories:
- Historical Journalism
- Political/Social Statement
- Pop Culture/”Whatever happened to?” Investigation
When it comes to Oscar nominees, there are usually two of the first, two of the second, and one of the latter. And it is the film in the latter category that tends to win because, I believe, they are the least challenging, and most connected to our own personal histories. We WANT to know more about our pop culture icons. We tend to want to ignore what the others are either showing us (in the first category) or telling us (in the second). But, among this year’s nominees, we have TWO of that last category. “Amy” and Liz Garbus’ insightful look in to an out-of-sight-out-of-mind force of artistic nature, Nina Simone. And since they are both about the untimely and unexpected disappearance of pure talent from the pop landscape (one literally, the other, figuratively), they cannot be discussed without comparison to each other.
Let me begin by saying how much I enjoyed how each turned me on to the lost, ignored, or forgotten music of each. At the conclusion of both films, I had a completely different perspective on each as artists, and I quickly acquired their perspective works. So, in their attempts to re-introduce us to not just the artist, but the art, they both succeed wildly.
But that’s where they part ways. “Amy” has the distinct advantage of having several hours worth of first person narrative available via home movies and phone videos – in which she is charismatic and unguarded. As a result, we understand her descent in to addiction and emotional chaos more personally…and, hence, possess a greater sense of empathy for her. And, by having that advantage, it feels much more organic…less chronological in nature. Garbus does not have that luxury with “Miss Simone”. Instead we only see her extremely closed and guarded onstage persona, filled in with comments from her daughter or her musical director – plus an odd interview or two with her husband and some other folks. This is then interspersed with a few talking heads telling us how important a figure she was. That makes up about 35% of the film. The rest is actual performance footage. So by the halfway point, it feels very paint-by-numbers in pace, if not in content. And as its running time is over 100 minutes, paint-by-numbers can feel pretty exhausting (or boring, even). The final result is that “Simone” feels like more of a dissertation than an artistic examination or mystery, as “Amy” did. And worst of all, Garbus seems to have a specific agenda in telling Simone’s story, but alas, since she sticks to the chronological, I’m not sure what it was. She covers far too much ground to make a specific point of view known to us.
I also found myself taking exception to some of the conclusions that are inferred by the end of the film…chicken and the egg stuff…did mental illness lead to her allowing the abuse she received, or the other way ’round. I’m sure it was not Ms. Garbus’ intention to answer that question for us, but I walked away with an answer…and one I vehemently disagree with. That might be a result of my being a mental health professional or a failing of the film…either way…it detracted from the overall experience for me.
As for that performance footage…it’s incredible! If you are at all a fan of American music, you must watch this film. In doing so, it becomes obvious, as it does with “Amy,” that we missed out on a couple decades of incredible beauty, sadness, and artistic force!
And if you found this review to be a mixed bag…a jumble of thoughts…it’s because the film is just that. But since it’s available on Netflix, there is no reason not to watch it – if nothing else, to be introduced (or reminded) of Nina Simone’s one-of-a-kind talent and social activism.
Written on 2/16/2016