I still remember the very first time I heard Feeling Good by Nina Simone – it was a very confusing experience. I was a teenager and being confused was my default setting, but Nina’s baritone-ish voice didn’t help matters. I didn’t like the song because she sounded… she didn’t even sound like a man. She sounded alien.
Fast forward to adulthood and I am playing catch-up. I want to consume every piece of Nina Simone information I can find – book, song, album and film. What Happened, Miss Simone? is a deeply fascinating documentary that I would recommend to everyone.
This film not only made me question how I viewed Nina, but how I view today’s black music artists. What is very clear in the film is that Nina was extraordinarily talented – stupidly so. If anything, Nina dumbed her talent down considerably to gain fame. Although she isn’t famous for many of her own written songs, the few she did write, like Mississippi Goddamn, further illustrates just how ridiculously talented she was.
Not many artists, of any colour, today come close to this woman’s talent. I’m struggling to even come up with one, to be honest.
This heartbreaking film (although, I am not sure it is supposed to be viewed this way) chronicles how life systematically went about diminishing her talent and sense of self. The first villain shows up when, as a little girl, Simone dreamt of being the first black classic concert pianist… this was until the world renowned Julliard School turned her down (Simone suspected racism). The second comes when Nina marries what I can only describe to be a monster, who abuses her until she flees the country. Finally, it is revealed that the real bad guy was the mental health issues she was suffering from for possibly the majority of her adult life.
Warning: this is not an easy watch.
Despite these challenges, this woman created music that still sounds beautiful, fresh, powerful and, yes, strange – even to this day.
The real power of this film is in moments when you see Nina come alive, when she is free on stage. Nina did not give a damn what many people thought, even her fans for that matter. She was unapologetic and she was always, always supremely talented. Talented and unique.
God bless Netflix for this film and please take the time to watch it.