Last night at Harlem’s historic Apollo Theater, the harrowing Nina Simone documentary What Happened, Miss Simone received its New York premiere, complete with a red carpet and an explosive mini tribute concert from Simone devotee Ms. Lauryn Hill. The film, a Netflix original due on the streaming site on June 26th, traces the life of the iconic singer and activist from her childhood classical training to her triumphant late-Eighties resurgence. Using recordings of Simone interviews and glimpses of diary entries to tell the tale, the film unflinchingly delves into manic depression, bipolar disorder and the cycle of abuse while providing plenty of powerful performance footage.
While the film — a patient, poignant portrayal with no shortage of mystery directed by Academy Award nominee Liz Garbus — was at times heartbreaking, Hill’s musical tribute was purely celebratory. Her arrangements of Simone songs were as wild and unpredictable as the tour versions of her own hits. Backed by a 19-piece band, she opened en français with the Nina-covered Jacques Brel tune “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” turning the fragile lover’s lament into a bombastic tune with Ennio Morricone drama and a hard-funking beat. A cover of “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” flickered with trap-style hi-hat jitters and John Carpenter synths, her voice hoarse but the end product rewriting a classic ballad as a dystopian Stevie Wonder with a long vamping outro.
After three false starts to get some sound issues correct (“We’re gonna do this right,” said Hill), she launched into a deconstructed version of Simone’s 1968 proto-rap “Ain’t Got No, I Got Life” complete with new blazing, high-octane, highly technical rhymes (“Lyrics with the safety off/Now dance around these niggas like Baryshnikov”).
Jazmine Sullivan came out from the wings for a run-through of “Baltimore,” a Randy Newman song that Simone covered in the late Seventies. Hill was sure to explicitly make the connection between the 1977 song (“Oh, Baltimore/Man, it’s hard just to live, just to live”) and the recent death of Freddie Gray. For the final number, Hill conducted her band for a version of the 1959 Simone instrumental “African Mailman,” making commands and shaping the sound as the musicians burned through solos (the highlight being a ripping, Jean-Luc Ponty-style violin turn). “Thank you Nina Simone for existing,” said Hill before leaving, “and being bold enough to speak.”
Hill was assuredly not the only person in attendance with an attachment to Simone. In the crowd were members of Simone’s band (guitarist Al Schackman, bassist Lisle Atkinson and drummer Leopoldo Fleming); Simone’s son-in-law and grandchildren; and famous fans like Usher, Sandra Bernhard, John Leguizamo and The Voice contestant Kimberly Nichole. Co-producer Jayson Jackson said a few words about an upcoming tribute album to be released alongside the film, featuring Hill, Usher, Sullivan, Mary J. Blige, Robert Glasper, Grace and Andra Day.
But even with all those names helping out, the film maintains an unflinching vision by focusing on but one. “When we started making the film, the guiding principle was Nina. How much of Nina could we bring to an audience?” said Garbus. “Could we search the Earth for every scrap of audio, every note, every performance, every interview that she ever did? And the film is a result of that worldwide search. The idea was to let Nina tell her story as much as possible and [for] us to get out of the way.”