Director Liz Garbus' amazing glimpses of Nina Simone in her new Netflix documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone?, add up to a breathless and wheezing hard stare at one of the world's most enigmatic talents. Garbus would've had to try to fail, of course, considering there's enough emotion in just a GIF of Miss Simone that even a random series of clips could rob Oscars from Meryl Streep. (Simone, of course, is not play-acting. Her dramatic story is real.) But the success here is the sharp storytelling that employs her songs (many are rare or previously unheard live recordings) as segues between jarringly different scenes. It's what could land What Happened, Miss Simone? among the most heartbreaking, motivating and striking music docs of all time.
From the way Nina Simone drapes herself to how she enchantingly erupts as an authentic stage presence, she transfixes audiences while her charged story unfolds beneath the increasingly impassioned war-cry trajectory of her musical career (from jazz clubs she never belonged in to her "disappointing" Carnegie Hall debut and beyond). We're given an intimate tour through the best times (hip parties that belong in Audrey Hepburn movies) and the worst times (abusive blows dealt both ways in her tumultuous family life). The entire time, your awe for this brainy, courageous, unbelievable figure compounds to form what should be a universally affecting conclusion for anyone who has been touched by Simone's songs (which is basically anyone with a pulse).
What Happened, Miss Simone? showcases how significantly different a life can be when you refuse to separate your public persona from your actual personality. Garbus' doc is unafraid to be as brutally honest as the singer it celebrates. Expect to shed some tears, to fall in love, to doubt yourself, to doubt Miss Simone, to doubt there is any justice in this world. Then also, expect to find out through fantastic interview clips interspersed between her knockout performances how Miss Simone eventually decided it feels to be free.
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