April 23, 2021

What Happened Miss Simone? doc on Netflix

I must admit that I put the documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? on my Netflix watch list and then never seemed to find the right time to view it.

I rectified that situation last week and marveled at the performance clips of this iconic singer-pianist-songwriter. Yes, it is painful to see the downward trajectory of Nina Simone’s life and career, but filmmaker Liz Garbus allows us to see the joy and passion in Simone’s performances as well.

Music clips are interwoven with interviews of her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly and her ex-husband, Andrew Stroud, footage of Hugh Hefner introducing her before she entertains a Playboy televised party and stunning video of her civil rights involvement. The film depicts her life in Liberia, the Netherlands, France and Switzerland after the divorce from her ex-New York cop spouse who had also been her manager. Especially moving are the comments by her long-time guitarist Al Schackman.

The title of the documentary is a quote from literary giant Maya Angelou who uttered this famous phrase to the world famous musician. Simone most likely suffered from manic depression or bi-polarity which was not effectively treated most of her life.

Mental illness was not the only challenge for Simone. Her budding career as a young classical pianist may have been thwarted by her lack of funds, her gender and the color of her skin. The civil rights movement consumed her and she admitted to Martin Luther King that she did not espouse non-violence in the black struggle. Her husband served her well in business but according to Simone, was abusive both emotionally and physically in their marriage.

As counterweight to the heavy topics, there is the glorious music that still attracts both young and old alike: I Loves You Porgy, My Baby Just Cares For Me, Mississippi Goddam, Strange Fruit, the Janis Ian-penned Stars and the Lorraine Hansberry-inspired Simone composition To Be Young, Gifted and Black are among the many songs heard in the film.

What Happened, Miss Simone? has been nominated for a 2016 Documentary Feature Oscar.


  1. Have you seen the doc “The Amazing Nina Simone” that screened at Siskel Film Center? Would love a boss comparison.

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