Filmmaker Liz Garbus was in the audience when Nina Simone performed at the 1976 Montreaux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, her first words to the audience being, “You don’t understand me, you don’t know what I mean when I say I’m tired . . . this is my last jazz concert and I’m graduating to a higher plane.” Garbus’ latest documentary, a Netflix original titled What Happened, Miss Simone?, is her attempt to understand what the iconic singer and civil rights activist meant by that declaration.
Garbus isn’t the first to do so, by any means: Simone wrote an 1991 autobiography, I Put a Spell on You, while several biopics have long been in the works (the first, titled Nina and starring Zoe Saldana as the singer, is scheduled to be released later this year). That is also to say nothing of Simone as an artist, who wrote “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” and skillfully reinterpreted songs by George Gershwin, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Bob Dylan to reflect her own truth. What makes this documentary remarkable, then, is its voiceover testimonials from the subject herself and interviews with family and friends, offering smaller but illuminating details of how depression, abuse and stardom wore Simone down before her Eighties-era resurgence. Here are 10 things we learned about Simone from the documentary.
1. Simone was lonely as a child.
This biographical detail does make sense, given what fans of hers have known about early life. Simone has talked before about her rigorous classical music training – how she started playing piano at the age of four, then inspired her Tryon, N.C., neighbors to raise money for her to attend Julliard in New York City. Still, to hear both the singer and her daughter Lisa Simone Kelly testify to the sense of isolation she felt is absolutely heartbreaking. “Even when the kids used to play, they always just wanted me to play the piano for them to dance,” Simone’s voiceover says.
2. She performed for Hugh Hefner.
If anything, this archival footage from Hefner’s short-lived TV show, Playboy’s Penthouse, is a remarkable testament to Simone’s mainstream appeal from early on in her career, before her music became increasingly political. “I’d like you to meet someone who I think most of you know,” the Playboy founder says, before Simone performs her breakout version of “I Loves You Porgy” from Porgy and Bess. He is speaking to viewers, of course, but also the men playing poker and Playboy Bunnies who have gathered in his living room – an all-white audience.
3. Radio stations didn’t just ban “Mississippi Goddam” – they sent the records back.
The 1963 bombing of a black Birmingham church lent to the turning point in Simone’s career. She wrote “Mississippi Goddam” in protest, which turned her into a rare female black voice speaking on behalf of the civil rights movement. (“We all wanted to say it, and she said it,” comedian Dick Gregory says.) But just as these activists started embracing Simone, radio stations expressed their disapproval – not only by banning “Mississippi Goddam” from being played, as it has been said before, but sending back the records cracked in half.
4. She once told Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “I’m not nonviolent.”
Once Simone began focusing her energies on the Civil Rights movement, she would ask crowds at concerts whether they “were ready to kill if necessary” for the cause. She was never one to lie about her beliefs, not even to the leader who actively made it known that he stood for peaceful, passive protesting. “I remember one time she walked right up to Dr. King and said, ‘I’m not nonviolent,'” guitarist Shackman says, laughing. “He said, ‘That’s okay, sister. You don’t have to be.'”
5. Simone was Malcolm X’s neighbor.
Simone and her family lived next door to the controversial, iconic figure and his wife Betty Shabazz in Mount Vernon, N.Y. The families became close, to the point where Simone’s daughter Kelly was constantly riding her bike back and forth between the two houses. “It was just a great, great time,” says Ilysah Shabazz, one of Malcolm and Betty’s six daughters. “There was music. There were discussions. Whether it was at our house or Lisa’s house, Nina Simone’s home, it was definitely party with a purpose.”
6. She obsessed over sex.
To Simone, her sexual appetite was a way for her to gauge not only her marriage, but her mental health – and her diaries, as revealed in What Happened, Miss Simone?, became a log of sorts for precisely that. “No desire for sex,” she wrote, when she began suffering from depression due, in part, to her grueling tour schedule as an increasingly in-demand performer. A rare interview with Stroud also recalls how Simone unleashed “a sex attack” once, though the singer likely viewed that night differently. “My attitude toward sex was that we should be having it all the time,” her voiceover says.
7. Simone once hid from her husband and manager for up to two weeks.
While I Put a Spell on You details the abusive she suffered from Andrew Stroud, What Happened, Miss Simone? offers a particularly brutal example. Simone’s voiceover and an interview with guitarist Al Shackman (who calls the singer “my sister” in the film) tell the story of how one night, after seeing Simone stick a note from a fan in her pocket, Stroud beat her “all the way home, up the stairs, in the elevator, in my room” before putting a gun to her head and raping her.
8. Simone was abusive as well.
When Simone left Stroud and relocated to Liberia, she abandoned her daughter Kelly for years in Mount Vernon without telling her where she went. When they finally reunited and her teenaged child started staying with her mother in West Africa, their relationship turned violent. “She went from being my comfort to the monster in my life,” Kelly says. ” Now she was the person doing the beating, and she was beating me.” The abuse became so unbearable that the young woman became suicidal and eventually moved back to New York to stay with Stroud.
9. She once had a nervous breakdown while opening for Bill Cosby.
The more outspoken Simone became on behalf of equal rights, the more she resented herself for it. “I think that the artists who don’t get involved in preaching messages probably are happier – but you see, I have to live with Nina, and that is very difficult,” she says in an interview. Later, Stroud tells a story that shows just how difficult that experience could be: “On the last night [of the tour] she became erratic,” he says. “She had a can of shoe polish, she was putting it in her hair, and she began talking gibberish. She was totally out of it – incoherent.”
10. She performed in a nearly-empty Paris cafe before her Eighties resurgence.
Simone was happy living in Liberia, though she wasn’t performing. So when she needed money, she moved to Paris and performed in a cafe every night for $300 each. “I was desperate, and no one believed that I was there. . . no one came to see me,” Simone’s voiceover says. Fortunately, moving to France also brought her closer to a good friend who started taking care of her. He had Simone see a doctor, who diagnosed her for the first time with manic depression and bipolar disorder – and he helped her book gigs more befitting of a living legend.