Skip to main content

The Life of Nina Simone as a Nonfiction Musical

By Ron Deutsch

Photo courtesy of Peter Rodis/Netflix

Editor's note: Over the next few weeks, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the films that have been honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with an Oscar® nomination in the documentary category. You can see What Happened, Miss Simone? on Saturday, February 27 at the Writers Guild of America Theater as a part of DocuDay.

Liz Garbus first burst onto the documentary scene in 1998 the way all documentary filmmakers dream of. The Farm: Angola USA, which she directed and produced with Jonathan Stack, earned the Sundance Grand Jury Prize, Best Documentary honors from both the National Society of Film Critics and New York Film Critics, and an Academy Award nomination. Since then, the films she's produced and/or directed—Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, Girlhood and The Execution of Wanda June among them— have all garnered critical praise, as well as three IDA Award nominations and three Primetime Emmy nominations. According to the Internet Movie Database, she has 34 producing credits and 22 for directing to date.

With the last three films Garbus has directed—Bobby Fischer Against the World (about the troubled chess master); Love, Marilyn (about Marilyn Monroe); and now What Happened, Miss Simone?— she has made a shift—though she prefers "evolution"—from vérité-style films to archival/historical films. But while some things have changed stylistically, there are themes and threads that run through all her work. She once said that her interest in documentary filmmaking is about "telling stories of humanity in all the gray areas." And there are many gray areas in the story of blues/soul/folk/jazz artist Nina Simone.

Simone was born Eunice Waymon in 1933 in segregated North Carolina. She was discovered as a musical prodigy by some white neighbors and began to give concerts for local white audiences, who raised enough money for her to study at Julliard for a year. Following that year, she performed in nightclubs and took the stage name Nina Simone. Fame came swiftly to her in the late 1950s, and by the mid-1960s she threw herself into the civil rights movement, not just writing scathing indictments of racist America in songs like "Mississippi Goddam," but also being actively involved, performing the song at the Selma-to-Montgomery march. She and her family lived next door to Malcolm X and his family in Mount Vernon, New York. Then, as many in the movement were killed in the ’60s, she left the United States, fleeing first to Liberia, then Switzerland and the Netherlands, before settling in France in 1992. She recorded and performed sporadically during that period in exile. In the late 1980s, thanks to one of her recordings being used in a Chanel perfume television commercial, she had a career resurgence, which lasted to her death in 2003.

Yet the true story of what was going on in her personal life off-stage was pretty much kept a secret between her family and close friends.

"Before I made this film, I knew her music, I knew of her activism, but I didn't understand how deep her political roots went," Garbus says. "I didn't understand about her Marxist teachings through Lorraine Hansberry [author of A Raisin in the Sun], nor the kind of community of Black intellectuals that she was part of. I had read her memoir, but I didn't understand some of the darker aspects of her personality."

Filmmaker Liz Garbus. Photo: Rommel Demano. Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Simone struggled with mental illness; she was bipolar, which wasn't diagnosed until the 1980s. This was all revealed to Garbus when she was approached to make the film by Simone's daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, who gave Garbus her mother's diaries and letters for research.

"In reading her diaries," Garbus recalls, "you really see a person who was very close to suicide and wanted to die. In one of her notes she said, 'Can't they all just see that I'm dead and only my ghost is hanging on?' And with the bipolar [diagnosis], there would also be a mania which would feed the other side of that—the performing and sex and all those other things. So all those psychological aspects of her personality—how could we know? And I don't think it's until you get deep into those diaries and talking to her family members that I was able to understand that."

Getting back to how this film connects to her previous body of work, Garbus states, "It's always about stories that are exciting to me, and stories that give me what I'm looking for, or what I think I can give other people my best on. But it's always those grays of human nature I was exploring.

"I think if you look at those characters in those three different films I've made," she adds, "it's people who have achieved extraordinary beauty and greatness, but with a lot of darkness amongst it. One of the things I've said about The Farm—and I think it's the same with those people as well—is that a human being is not equal to their worst actions. And what works so beautifully in the case of Nina Simone is that it's part of a larger historical and cultural shift. It's about that legacy of racism in our country that produces this art and this human being. And the same with Bobby Fischer and Marilyn Monroe. They were all part of and at odds with their times, which created both extraordinary fame, but also the personal price they paid."

There's a line in the film spoken by one of Malcom X's daughters: "Activism wreaks havoc on everyone’s life…There’s a sacrifice to the cause." One can easily substitute "activism" for "commitment to [fill in the blank]," and that line would serve to describe all three of these films' subjects.

"That's definitely a thread in those films," Garbus agrees. "Those individuals are connected, despite their appearances of being so incredibly different. I think part of it has to do with being a prodigy. You look at Bobby and Nina in the way they were socialized from such a young age as being different and special and pursuing this one thing where everything else sort of falls to the side. People don't play in the way they play with other kids. I think there's that price of being a prodigy. Certainly, fame exacted a toll on Marilyn Monroe, who also had a troubled childhood. For Bobby Fischer, I think it probably has more to do with that isolated prodigal upbringing and the way in which he figured in American Cold War politics, and perhaps his own neuro-biological proclivities towards mental illness. But going through that social and cultural upheaval can exact a huge toll. Nina put it all on the mat—and then they threw out the mat."

In a sense, the Nina Simone film is an answer to the previous two films, because she does get help.

Photo: Al Wertheimer. Courtesy of Netflix

"Yes, that's right," Garbus agrees. "She maintains close relationships despite her difficulty. There were those who stayed around her, Al Schackman [her guitarist] being one of them, who were able to get help to her. And she accepted it. Maybe it was a love for performing that allowed her to accept it, in the sense that it was too disruptive and she wasn't getting the gigs she wanted because she was too unreliable. Maybe it was just a sense of self and self-esteem, and the family she had. But yes, she did get that help and lived into her old age. So she survived."

"In many ways," Garbus adds, "What Happened, Nina Simone? is the film that I've been practicing to make my whole career. From Bobby Fischer, The Farm, the legacy of racism, the figure of the female, and the complex role that the Black female plays in our society—these are all the themes I've been looking at in various films, and I feel that Nina is the embodiment of them all. So there's a shift, but there's also more of an evolution."

Garbus was invited by Simone's estate and the production company Radical Media (The Fog of War, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster) to pitch for the project. Any filmmaker who has been involved in a project produced by parties with a personal interest in the film's subject knows to expect some kind of interference because of the investment in keeping certain myths alive and avoiding those aspects of the subject that don't jibe with the "official story." And viewers have gotten savvy enough to generally recognize an "authorized" biography when they see one. So Garbus made it clear that she would need creative control, including final cut.

"First of all," the filmmaker explains, "I had some incredible producers who were on the front lines dealing with the estate and lawyers. So as I was going through my process, I was basically insulated from whatever things would piss somebody off, or if this or that song was going to be verboten. I think their attitude was, 'Okay, if there's some problem or we're not going to be able to use this song, then we'll tell Liz. But until we know that, we're not going to.' And it turned out there really weren't verboten areas, so there was nothing I was asked to not talk about or include.

"And the other thing I'll say that was fairly amazing is that I met Lisa, the daughter, right when I started the project, and then nine months later when I interviewed her, and then nine months after that before the film was going to Sundance. We sent her a pre-locked version of the film, and she just said, 'Bless you, Liz. My work is done. Mommy's truth is out there.' How many of us could look at a film about one of our parents—and a very complicated parent—and not have a single tweak? It shows how hard Lisa has come as a daughter in forgiving her mother and working on herself. The film doesn't pull punches about Nina. We definitely talk about some of her uglier moments, and I was never discouraged from doing so."

One of the uglier aspects in Simone's life was her relationship with her husband/manager, Andy Stroud, an ex-New York vice cop who died in 2012. Garbus managed to find interview footage of Stroud through letters she found in some boxes from the estate. Sometime in the early 2000s, Lisa had decided she wanted to make a film with her father about their lives. She had contacted a pair of filmmakers to shoot father and daughter interviewing each other. One of the filmmakers, Jerry Kupfer (Dancemaker), had the tapes, which no one had ever seen. [The other was Betsy Schechter (Touched by Elvis).] Garbus got releases from the estate and was able to license the footage. In it, Stroud is candid about his often physically abusive relationship with his wife.

"I think it is very complicated when you're depicting a marriage in which there was domestic violence," Garbus says. "So often the claims by the woman are not believed, or there's blame or denial going on. And here you have a situation where a person [Simone] is saying, 'I love to fight. I love physical violence.' She wrote that in her letters. Certainly the problem in a fight with Andy Stroud is that he is a huge, trained police officer, so it's not a fair fight. Also there's rape involved. It was a complicated line to walk, but it's not a full understanding of Nina to paint it as, say, an Ike and Tina Turner story, though of course their relationship was also very complicated. But in this case, Nina loved and was in love with Andy and she knew from very early on that he was violent, and part of her wanted to be around that. But at a certain point, it got to be too much, and she was able to extract herself from that.

Photo courtesy of Peter Rodis/Netflix

"One of the things I always thought about was how everything in Nina's life was a contradiction," Garbus continues. "Her greatest love was also the greatest violence and darkness in her life. Africa represented for her freedom, but also artistic languishing. In everything there was this oppositional force at play. Her career success was always laden with regret and woe for the path not traveled. And that is a hard way to live.

"I have to thank goodness for Lisa's honesty for portraying the relationship in that complex manner as well," Garbus adds. "She said that Dad would beat Mom up, but it was like 'inviting the bull with the red cape into your kitchen.' Nina would go after that red cape. So thankfully, we had Lisa talking about it a nuanced way, and we also had Nina's diaries and letters in which she was talking about being beaten, but also being drawn to it."

But it's not all darkness in the film. The brighter side of Simone's life was her music. Garbus not only manages to distill show-stopping performances from all the available live footage of Simone, but structured the set list of songs to represent Simone's state of mind and being through each stage of her story.

"Clearly, making a film about Nina Simone music was a narrative issue, not just an aesthetic one," Garbus explains. "And, to be fair, music is always a narrative issue in all film. But I came to think of this film in the edit as a 'nonfiction musical.' The music was definitely a structural element for the film. Every song has both a narrative and aesthetic function, and the film was structured around those songs. So we hear 'Porgy' when she's meeting the love of her life, Andy Stroud. And when she's leaving him, we play 'Don't Smoke in Bed,' which is a song about a break-up. Of course, during the late ’60s, during her activist period, there's 'Young, Gifted & Black,' 'Backlash Blues' and 'Mississippi Goddam.'

"We were also not thinking just about the songs themselves and what they were about and how they felt musically, but also the performances," Garbus continues. "Because the performances vary. You can watch a performance of 'Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood,' which wouldn't feel right for the moment in the film that we wanted to use, which was about her soul-searching. So it was also about combing through all the clips to find the right performance. And sometimes there was an emotion in a performance that was right for the moment in the film, even if that song was being used out of time. So there's all different kinds of ways to evaluate this kind of 'nonfiction musical' structure that we came to understand we were building."

Speaking of editing, Garbus notes that it's maybe her favorite part of the process.

"For me, it's sort of like a process of sculpture," she says. "You have this big mound of clay that has bumps and warts and is huge and looks like nothing, and then you find the beautiful shape it wants to be in. Our job as directors is to find a way this film should feel, and turn, and move."

For Simone, she worked with Josh Pearson. "I had never worked with him before," she says. "Radical Media said to give him a try. I was kind of reluctant and wanted to work with people I'd worked with a million times, but I gave Josh a try, and it was an incredible partnership."

One of the things when talking with Garbus about Nina Simone is that she seems to speak of her as if she were alive and was involved in the film's production. She explains that because so much of the research for the film involved listening to many hours of audio interviews of Simone, as well as immersing herself in Simone's music, it did feel like that.

"I do feel like she was with me in that way," Garbus admits. "It's like I had a kind of relationship with her. At the premiere in Berlin, her daughter Lisa gave me a necklace of Nina's. It was so wonderful, because I do feel in my own little crazy head that I know her, and now to have something from her—the connection just felt very, very complete and it meant a lot to me."


What Happened, Miss Simone? opens in theaters June 24, and premieres on Netflix June 26.

Ron Deutsch is a contributing editor with Documentary Magazine. He has written for many publications including National Geographic, Wired, San Francisco Weekly and The Austin American-Statesman. He is currently associate-producing the documentary Record Man, about the post-war music industry.