Liz Garbus’s What Happened, Miss Simone? “features extensive live footage of Nina Simone, the politically engaged jazz/blues/pop singer who played a major role in the Civil Rights movement, and then disappeared from public life for a while under mysterious circumstances,” writes Noel Murray at the Dissolve. “Garbus covers Simone’s entire life story—from her upbringing in rural North Carolina to her late-in-life comeback—and focuses especially on her tumultuous marriage and violent mood-swings. The bio-doc format is far too staid for such a radical, volatile performer, but again, it’s hard to be too down on any movie that features so many long scenes of Simone on stage, either rallying her fans or provoking them with angry stares, before launching into some of the best American popular music of the 1960s.”
“Garbus, who previously investigated the intersection of madness, genius and celebrity in documentaries about Marilyn Monroe (Love, Marilyn) and the chess master Bobby Fischer (Bobby Fischer Against the World), has perhaps her richest subject yet in Simone, whose life and career were predicated on resisting the very sort of labels and categories that biographies, by their very nature, are wont to apply,” writes Variety‘s Scott Foundas. “But Garbus embraces Simone in all her multitudes and contradictions—or at least as many of them as can be comfortably squeezed into a 100-minute running time.”
Martin Chilton in the Telegraph: “Simone’s anger at the killing of four black children in a bomb blast in the basement of a church in Birmingham, Alabama by Robert Edward Chambers (known to fellow Klansmen as ‘Dynamite Bob’) prompted her to write one of the 60s’ greatest songs, ‘Mississippi Goddam.’ She said: ‘I’m not beyond killing, Nobody is. But I wrote “Mississippi Goddam” instead.'”
“Clearly there is entertainment value in this documentary, but it’s very much of a ‘behind the music’ calibre,” writes Jordan Hoffman for the Guardian. A clip, commentary from an associate or a critic like Stanley Crouch, another clip, rinse, repeat…. What Happened, Miss Simone? is another example of Wikipedia-entry-as-cinema, but with a life this remarkable, it’s still worth a look.”
Paste‘s Tim Grierson agrees that “the documentary has the unfortunate habit of making history seem a bit staid. This is all the more surprising considering how despairingly timely Miss Simone? is. At a moment in U.S. history when racial tensions are front-page news because of police shootings in places like Ferguson—and when a recent movie, Selma, can remind us of how far we still have to go to erase divisions between groups—the political turmoil that ensnared Simone couldn’t be more relevant or stinging. Miss Simone? instead settles for a traditional rise-then-fall-then-rise-again narrative that, although accurate to Simone’s career and life trajectory, can’t help but feel routine. It also doesn’t help that the movie’s interview subjects don’t have much insightful to say about what specifically made her such a musical titan.”
More from Leslie Felperin (Hollywood Reporter), Daniel Fienberg (HitFix), Sam Fragoso (RogerEbert.com), Mike Hogan (Vanity Fair) and Anisha Jhaveri (Indiewire, B). And Indiewire gets a few words with Garbus.
Update, 1/25: “Though she considered herself a classical pianist and musician, she found herself a supporting character in the combative civil rights movement, which only appropriately projected the turmoil that thrashed within her,” writes Amanda Yam for Ioncinema. “What Happened, Nina Simone? channels this self-conflict and illustrates how it both motivated and ultimately destroyed a woman who lived her life at a constant extreme.”
Update, 1/31: Flavorwire‘s Jason Bailey finds the doc to be “less than the sum of its parts, somehow; maybe it just seems like such an unconventional performer shouldn’t get such a conventional documentary treatment.”