What happened to Miss Simone? The short answer is heartbreak. Unrelenting, persistent, soul-shattering heartbreak.
What Happened Miss Simone attempts to allow Nina Simone to tell her story in the first person. A lot of the voice over is from archival footage of video recording, tape recordings and personal diaries of Nina Simone from while she was alive.
For someone as dynamic as Nina Simone, no one can tell her story but herself. Her life was blighted by thwarted dreams and unending series of disappointments and heartbreaks from those she trusted the most.
She was not supposed to be a jazz and soul singer. She was supposed to be a classical concert pianist. Had she been born white, that’s what she would have become. She was classical piano prodigy when she was a child. She was so talented that her mother’s white employer paid for Nina to take classical piano lessons with Muriel Mazzanovich. When she became good enough to host recitals, all the money she earned from those events were put into a trust for her future tuition for music conservatories. She got into Juilliard, but she only had enough tuition to attend for one and a half years. When she applied for a scholarship to attend the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, she was rejected. When she realized that she was rejected on the account of her race and not talent, she was heartbroken. She never got over that. She wanted to be the first black classical pianist to play Carnegie Hall now those dreams are dashed.
To support herself and her family, she began working at dive bars in the Philadelphia area. She worked long hours every night playing the piano. She played whatever she knew how to play, from jazz to classical pieces. One day the owner of the bar said she had to sing and play the piano or else she will have to leave her position. She needed that job, so she began singing jazz, blues and soul music. She’s never had any training as a singer nor a songwriter, but she could do both on a whim. This is the culmination of the years of rigorous classical piano training.
During this time she met and married her husband Andrew Stroud, who also became her agent and business manager. He was a former New York Police Department detective and a brute. He was abusive to her, beat her when she was pregnant with their only child Lisa, he abused her in public, raped her and belittled her. She said “he protected me from everyone except himself.” He was a good agent and manager but shitty husband and poor excuse of a human being. He treated her like a commodity rather than a human being. Her earnings afforded them a luxurious lifestyle and he didn’t care how much he was working her.
She became well known and was offered record contracts and television appearances. When she finally did get to play at Carnegie Hall, it was bittersweet. She wanted to play Carnegie Hall as a classical pianist and not a jazz and soul singer. Her first love was classical piano and it was reflected in her music. She always sang with piano accompaniment and it almost seems as the piano playing is the main act and her singing is the supporting act. She was singing just so can sit down and play the piano.
Like all people born and raised in the Jim Crow south, racism was a deeply wounding and oppressive fact of life for black people. Nina Simone was no different than others but the “secrecy” surrounding it all bothered her deeply. The fact you couldn’t even discuss it in their homes, this huge elephant that exists in their society yet you can’t confront it or even discuss it. You had to pretend it wasn’t there. To talk about it or confront it meant you were going to go confront it with white people and that can get your whole family killed. So, when the Civil Rights Movement came along, she was all in. She wrote songs which served as anthems for the Civil Rights Movement, such as ‘Mississippi Goddamn’. As her political activism increased, her contemporary musical output decreased.
The Civil Rights Movement became her purpose in life. She lent her musical talents to a cause greater than herself and it gave her life meaning. Since her dreams of being a concert pianist was taken from her on the account of race, the Civil Rights Movement was a way to redress that. Her husband Andrew Shroud opposed it because it attracted controversy and her lucrative contracts started to dry up. On this point she stood up to him. Needless to say their home life suffered even more. Andrew Stroud is truly an appalling excuse of a human being. He brutalized and abused this woman, sought to screw his only daughter out of her mother’s legacy and inheritance yet he has no qualms about showing his face on camera and expressed zero remorse or guilt about what he had done to his wife.
Nina Simone was no non-violence activist, she was a black nationalist, along the same vein of Malcolm X and she told Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so. She walked up to him and told him that she didn’t believe in nonviolence, she believed in taking back black power by all means necessary. When Dr. King and Malcolm X were assassinated, it became too much for her. This was another heartbreak, she believed the Civil Rights Movement has died with their assassinations. She left the country, first she went to Barbados, then she went to live in Liberia and those were the happiest years of her life. When she needed to go back to work to earn a living, she moved to France and began working in dive bars for hundreds of dollars a night only.
In the backdrop of most of her adult life, she had violent mood swings and episodes of depression. As she got older, it became more unmanageable, she was diagnosed as bipolar in the 1980s and put on medication. While the medication stabilized her moods and helped with her overall mental state, as time wore on, it affected her piano playing and singing ability. Being on medication allowed her to tour in Europe and earn a living, she was able to end her life in a dignified manner. She was no longer rich and famous, but she kept her integrity and she never compromised her principles for fame. By aligning herself with the Black Nationalist movement severely harmed her career and earning prospects and she knew it but she didn’t care.
After she left her husband in the early ’70s and after the death of her Civil Rights heroes, she went into a downward spiral. The torment that was hidden in her heart revealed itself. All of that anger, hurt, rejection, rage she felt towards society, towards her former husband, she took it out on her only child. She brutalized and abused her only child the way her former husband and society brutalized her. She turned into that monster she sought to run away from and that’s a true shame. After one beating so bad in Liberia, Lisa Simone Kelly chose to take a one way flight back to New York to her father and never lived with her mother again. She was just 14 years old. Mother and daughter never truly reconciled. The wounds were too deep. Lisa Simone Kelly is also a singer, actress and performer. She has come to an accept her mother as she was and appreciate her immense talent but you can tell she cannot bring herself to say she loved her mother. The damage was too much. The last zinger from Lisa Simone Kelly is telling:
“I have been married 18 years, I have a good relationship with my children and I hope I’ll get to die with a smile on my face surrounded by my family. My mother never got that. She passed away still in search of comfort and love. Perhaps if she had them, she might, in the end, have known peace.”
The film is full of archival footage of Nina Simone’s performances and interviews. I learned that I knew many of her songs but I didn’t know it was she who sang and wrote them. She had exiled herself from the United States from 1970s and onwards, the music industry all but forgotten her or relegated her to the dusty shelves of the great artists of yesteryear.
Two days before she died on April 21, 2003, Curtis Institute of Music, the school that turned her down for a scholarship on the account of her skin color, gave her an honorary degree. If they had done what they were supposed to do 50 years prior, we would have been deprived of one of the best singer songwriters of our times but Nina Simone would have had a chance at becoming a fulfilled and happy person.