Nina Simone: ‘a dream project’
January 20, 2015
"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 overflows with your commitment to the battle of Life? What happened to you?"
~ Dr. Maya Angelou, 1970, Redbook magazine
The much-decorated film documentarian and Sundance Film Festival veteran, Liz Garbus, is back this year with "What Happened, Miss Simone?," a both stark and lush look at the life of Nina Simone, the troubled, classically trained child prodigy who grew into one of the most fabled recording and performing artists of the 1950s and ’60s.
Garbus, initially approached by the global studio Radical Media, who had been contacted by Nina’s only child, Lisa Simone Kelly, and the Estate of Nina Simone to pursue a possible film project of Nina’s life, after a bit of research, jumped in with both feet.
Speaking to The Park Record in a telephone conversation last week from her office in New York City, Ms. Garbus reminisced about the personal path that led to her making the film and the passion with which she entered upon the project.
"When Radical reached out to me, I picked up her autobiography, "I Put A Spell on You," written by Nina with the help of Stephen Cleary. I read it in two hours. I was spellbound. This was my dream project."
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Primarily a filmmaker and storyteller with a special connection to those lives that actually made a difference within the culture in which they lived, as such films as "Girlhood," "Shouting Fire," "Bobby Fischer Against the World," and "Love Marilyn," can attest, Garbus sees "What Happened, Miss Simone?" as a logical extension.
"I draw this trajectory because it all feels very clear to me now that this work was leading to this one new place, this one new film – the story of a little-understood but much-loved genius named Nina Simone."
Coming upon over 25 hours of previously unheard interview tapes Simone had made with Stephen Cleary, the co-writer of her autobiography, Garbus now had a jumping off point: Simone telling her own story in her own deeply resonating and haunting voice.
Like most, Garbus had come to Nina’s music before she came to understand the depth and complexities that marked her life. And, as with many, it was that astounding voice that set the hook.
"I wanted this to be the inside story, coming purely from Nina’s own voice and those in her life who knew her most closely," Garbus added.
Nina Simone’s quite-singular life, which took her from a childhood in the Jim Crow south through the Julliard School of the Performing Arts to social activism and a Carnegie Hall debut before self-imposed exiles in both Africa and Europe, is embellished in the film by her own voice telling her story in both narrative and song.
And what gorgeously layered songs she left us. From "Sinnerman," "My Baby Just Cares For Me," and "Feeling Good" to "Black Is The Color of My True Love’s Hair," "My Baby Just Cares For Me," and the in-your-face civil rights anthem "Mississippi Goddam," inspired by the assassination of Medgar Evers and the church bombing that took the lives of four young black girls.
"Today, ‘Mississippi Goddam’ feels as relevant as ever. I wish she were here to inspire us with her music, her incisive words and unrelenting commitment to truth and justice," adds Garbus, who punctuates her film so completely with Nina’s songs that the Sundance 2015 Film Guide refers to it as "a non-fiction musical — lush tracks and riveting story resonating inextricably."
Selected to screen initially in the prestigious slot of an Opening Night Film on Thursday, Jan. 22, at the Eccles Theater and showing thereafter in the Documentary Premieres category, "What Happened, Miss Simone?" looks to be one of the hottest tickets around for this year’s Festival.
Liz Garbus’s "What Happened, Miss Simone?" premieres Thursday, Jan. 22, at 5:45 p.m. at the Eccles Theatre. Additional screenings are Friday, Jan. 23, at 8:30 a.m. at the MARC Theatre and at 6 p.m. at the Salt Lake City Library Theatre, Friday, Jan. 30, at 12:30 p.m. at Redstone Cinema 1, and Saturday, Jan. 31, at 9 p.m. at the Salt Lake City Library Theatre.