Sundance 2015: Nina Simone Doc Opens Fest With a Roar

'What Happened, Miss Simone' kicks off with a John Legend performance

Nina Simone Credit: Alfred Wertheimer

It's become a recent-ish tradition for the Sundance Film Festival to kick off their opening night with not one but two selections: one narrative feature and one documentary. Given that Park City's annual gathering of independent filmmakers, hard-to-please tastemakers and curious, altitude-sick out-of-towners has been a key player in turning nonfiction movies into a mainstream phenomenon — the list of significant docs this fest has launched is miles long — the eventual doubling down was no surprise. As Robert Redford mentioned in his unusually brief opening remarks at last night's first public screening at the Eccles Theater, he's always wanted to erase the notion that documentaries aren't "movies," and giving the form a gala platform is yet another way of putting his money where his still remarkably photogenic mouth is. (Even odder than Redford's brevity: The festival's founder walked right past the podium and started addressing the crowd from the center of a dark stage, without a microphone. It took Festival Director John Cooper to get him back into the spotlight. Everything okay, Bob?)

Music docs in particular have done well for Sundance's first-night premieres, with several choices — Searching for Sugar Man and Twenty Feet From Stardom — starting things out on literal and figurative high notes. (Last year's opening narrative film, Whiplash, also got the fest moving with a primo musical bang; as for its 2015 counterpart, the gymnastics raunchcom The Bronze, let us never speak of it again.) Liz Garbus' What Happened, Miss Simone?, a portrait of singer/activist/force of nature Nina Simone, may not be on the level of those award-winning movies, but damned if it doesn't lay out the life story of "the high priestess of soul" in broad, clips-bountiful strokes. You may find fault with the film's tendency to glide over certain aspects of her career and personal struggles. You will not leave the movie without being a bona fide Simone fan if you aren't already.

Beginning with footage of the singer staring down an audience at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1976, What Happened goes about answering its question by flipping back to Simone's childhood, detailing her early musical ambitions to be the first black female classical pianist. Despite her talent and the financial support of well-to-do patrons, she was rejected by the prestigious Curtis Institute in Philadelphia; that "early jolt of racism," as Simone referred to the incident, became the first of several events to fuel an inexhaustible supply of anger at society. A summer gig at an Atlantic City bar gave birth to the blues chanteuse she'd eventually become, with the film tracing her rise to hit recording artist, jazz sensation, long-suffering wife (her manager/husband Andrew Stroud does not come off well), a major player in the Civil Rights movement, industry pariah, American ex-pat, playing-for-chump-change café performer and, eventually, a rediscovered legend.

Music docs often live or die by the footage they dig up of their performer(s), and the clips Garbus uses to chart Simone's numerous rises and falls makes all the difference: a Playboy's Penthouse episode of Hugh Hefner introducing the singer crooning her version of "I Loves You, Porgy"; Simone performing a fiery "Mississippi Goddam," her reaction to the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church; a rendition of "The Backlash Blues," in which the violence of her piano playing underlines the aggressiveness of the lyrics; a cri de couer take on "Why? (The King of Love Is Dead)" given on the day of Martin Luther King's death. By the time we circle back to the Montreux footage, in which Simone stops dead in her tracks to glare down an audience member, we have an incredible sense of how dynamic she was as a live performer. "If they can't listen, fuck 'em," Simone says in one of numerous audio recordings the filmmaker uses as loose narration, and you sense her frustration that people are watching her but not actually hearing her. Seeing the woman in action on a stage, whether lost in some internal reverie or fully engaged as she slap-tickles the ivories, it seems impossible not to be completely enthralled by her on all levels.

You can sense that Garbus is equally mesmerized, even as she delves into the less-than-savory aspects of Simone's personal life and mental instability. The voiceovers and testimonies from various close friends and family — notably her daughter — attest to serious bouts of depression, the dishing out of abuse and how the more drained she became from a grueling touring schedule, the more she started coming apart at the seams. Anger is an energy, a wise man once said, and you see how Simone used it as fuel and how it burned her up. If anything, you wish What Happened dove even deeper into the ups and downs of her later years (the last decade or so of her life is covered in a few brief scenes and then wrapped up with a brief disclaimer). Any subject as complicated and multitude-containing as Simone is going to present problems for a documentarian trying to cover everything in two hours, and it's easy to spot the places where Garbus comes up a bit short.

Yet the balancing act she comes up with is still impressive: This is neither an out-and-out hagiography nor a bid to present Simone as nothing but a martyr to social ills and self-destructiveness. The temptation to do nothing but wax effusive and/or wallow in misery stops short of detrimental, and that footage makes up for a lot. It's not definitive, but music doc-wise, it is determined and devastating nonetheless. 

The Sundance folks had been promising a "surprise" following the screening, and following a standing ovation for Garbus, the screen lifted to reveal John Legend at a piano, ready to perform three Simone-covered songs. In his hands, "Lilac Wine" becomes a woozy, punch-drunk ode to the fact that it's better to have loved and lost, etc.; considering the song, originally written for a revue, is so closely associated with Simone and, later, Jeff Buckley, Legend does his best to leave his stamp on it. "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free" comes off as positively joyful despite the lyrics ("I wish I could break/All the chains holdin' me"), and his slow-burn version of Simone's torch-song arrangement of "Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" should become a standard part of his repertoire if it isn't already. Approaching the front of the stage and posing for pictures arm-in-arm with Garbus and Redford, the musician looked like he knew he'd just taken the audience to church. The only way he could have paid better tribute to Simone is if he'd stopped the show and stared down the crowd.

Check out our Sundance page for complete coverage of the 2015 festival.