A Soul Whose Intentions Are Good

Musician Nina Simon is honoured with a special documentary this summer. Sienna Vittoria Lee-Coughlin speaks to director Liz Garbus about the film.

Published by S/ magazine, Summer 2015. Read it here.

“I had the ability to make people feel on a deep level,” wrote Nina Simone (1933– 2003) in her autobiography I Put A Spell On You (published in 1992). “I was hypnotizing an entire audience to feel a certain way.”

After reading Simone’s soulful autobiography, acclaimed film producer and director Liz Garbus was captivated by the singer’s life and set out to paint a portrait of the musician as both an artist and a civil rights activist. The documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone?, which premieres June 26 on Netflix, brilliantly weaves together rare concert footage, archival interviews, diaries and letters, along with interviews with Simone’s daughter, close friends, family members and collaborators.

“I wanted the film to be from Nina’s point of view as much as possible,” says Garbus, who dutifully embarked on a worldwide scavenger hunt to unearth 40 years’ worth of material that would faithfully portray Simone’s life.

Born Eunice Wayman in North Carolina in 1933 to a Methodist minister and a handyman, the young Simone first set her fingers to the piano at the age of three. She was raised in her community as a musical prodigy, but the expectations placed upon her and the pressure for greatness weighed down on her. She was rejected from the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, and insisted, until her death, that it was due to race.

To support herself, Simone taught music to local students until the release of her first album, Little Girl Blue, in 1958 under the Bethlehem record label. In 1963, Simone reacted to the assassination of Medgar Evers and the Alabama church bombing that killed four young African-American girls with a song titled “Mississippi Goddamn,” and after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., she performed “Why (The King of Live Is Dead).”

Garbus asserts that these powerful and confrontational songs are just as relevant today as they were during the civil rights movement of the sixties. She cites the recent killings of unarmed black men by white police as one major issue that needs to be addressed today.

Not only did Simone struggle against the racism within society and domestic violence in her own household, but she also suffered from alternating bouts of depression and rage—an affliction that was eventually diagnosed as bipolar disorder. Her soulful voice and poignant lyrics channelled “love, rage, hurt, strength and so many different aspects and colours of the human experience,” says Garbus.

Simone’s music mixed elements of jazz, gospel, blues, pop, soul, folk and classical in a very modern and revolutionary way, and her unique sound helped change the musical landscape forever. “Listening to Nina Simone for me is like having a fully immersive, three-dimensional experience,” continues Garbus. “It’s theatre.”

Garbus hopes that this film will help place Simone amongst the ranks in which she belongs—alongside the other greatest performers of the 20th century such as James Brown, Miles Davis and Bob Dylan. “I had an opportunity to tell the story of a fascinating and complex woman,” says Garbus, “and put her in that rightful place.”