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What Happened, Miss Simone?

December 27, 2015

What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015)
Director: Liz Garbus

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Synopsis: The life and work of blues singer, Nina Simone.

Review: This exemplary, textbook example of the biographical documentary is a real delight, taking someone like myself – a relative novice on the film’s subject (Nina Simone) – and succeeding in making that novice much more conversant in the very subject matter by the film’s end.

Structurally and content-wise it’s near perfect: the film cleverly opens on a thematising visual anecdote (a jittery, loose cannon Simone in a mid-seventies concert), before taking us back to the beginning of her life – ostensibly showing us how we got to that point through charting Simone’s unlikely genesis as a classical pianist, then how she moved into the public consciousness as a tour de force jazz singer/performer and political icon, and how she ultimately wound up the disaffected, mentally unstable woman we meet in the opening sequence. From there, the story is concluded in the film’s final act….

Filmmaker Liz Garbus makes the wise choice of sourcing the extensive archive footage available of Simone, plus using Simone’s own voiceover narration from a previous feature, and the frank insights from those closest to her (her friends, her daughter, her estranged husband) to colour in an intimate perspective of Simone’s life. Garbus is also patient enough to linger wisely on the concerts of Simone, as so much comes out from not only the musical element of these performances, but also how she conducts herself and interacts with the audience.

I confess to being a little agnostic about the slate of original Netflix documentaries that have been sprouting up in recent months, but the quality of this one won’t make me quite so reticent about seeking the next one out. (December 2015)

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