What Happened, Miss Simone? is a direct quote from a Maya Angelou poem. “But what happened, Miss Simone? Specifically, what happened to your big eyes that quickly veil to hide the loneliness? To your voice that has so little tenderness, yet flows with your commitment to the battle of Life? What happened to you?”
Maya Angelou posed the question 45 years ago in an essay published in Redbook magazine, and it’s at the center of Liz Garbus’s powerful and brutally honest documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone?
So what did happen to Eunice Kathleen Waymon, (Nina’s real name) the little girl from Tryon, North Carolina, who dreamed of becoming the first famous black classical pianist? A White woman (Mrs. Miller) who Nina’s mother (Mary Kate Waymon) worked for, heard Nina playing the piano and decided she was worthy of piano lessons, so she paid for Nina to take formal training from an Englishwoman who’d moved to Tyron with her Russian painter husband and a strict devotee of Joann Sebastian Bach, named Muriel Massinovitch. Not only did Mrs. Massinovitch continue to work with Nina everyday, Mrs. Miller continued to invest money into Nina’s education and future. Nina loved learning the music of super composer Bach and she loved playing classical music on the piano. She was considered a child prodigy and later a musical genius. As a child, Nina was isolated from her friends and family as she practiced everyday. She had no real friends and no real childhood life. As Nina grew older, her dreams stayed focused on being the first female Black, classic piano player in the world. She studied at Julliard School of Music in 1950 to 1951 before applying to Curtis Institute but was turned down — thinking she wasn’t good enough she quickly learned it was because she was Black and because the world was not like the wonderful White lady who had sponsored her. She soon gave up her dream and took on a job as her money was running out.
Her career started in bars where she began playing a different kind of music. It didn’t take long before Nina changed her name, became popular, got married then divorced and was well on her way to being the “High Priestess of Soul”. She remarried in 1960 to former police detective Andy Stroud, who became her manager. They had a daughter, Lisa Celeste, in 1961, who Nina barely saw grow up because of the fast pace of life she was living. Eventually, Nina joined the political movement and her life because even more hectic. Her political stance consumed her and began to define who she was. Her record sales plumage and she began to display very odd behavior. She imposed a self exile from the US that lasted 15 years. She settled in Barbados, then in 1974 in Liberia, Africa then finally in Switzerland. She became broke and broken. Her story is quite a bitter one with many surprising twist. No one knew what was wrong with Nina, despite many examinations. After a suicide attempt, she found herself in a London hospital. What Happened, Miss Simone? explains the many answers to that question and finally tells of Nina’s bi-polar diagnosis, which brought many of her mood swings and odd behavior to light. Nina Simone left a powerful impression on the world before she passed in 2003, at the age of 70. This documentary is powerful and full of her most impressive music. What Happened, Miss Simone? can be seen on Netflix (streaming). I highly recommend it to everyone. There is currently no release date for DVD.
[WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE? is nominated for Best Documentary]