By Gregory Crofton
Director Liz Garbus (There’s Something Wrong With Aunt Diane, Bobby Fischer Against the World) knows how to make an entertaining documentary, especially when subject matter gets dark and pushes into the world of mental illness.
Simone (her real name was Eunice Waymon) was a gifted soul and jazz and pop singer. Trained as a classical pianist, her career got sidetracked after she was refused admission to the school of her choice because she was black.
WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE? is full of outstanding live clips of Simone performing, mesmerizing audiences with her wily, almost brutal charm. It’s also aptly conveys the burdens of the Civil Rights Era, which were especially hard to bear, often fatal, for people like Simone who openly protested the conditions of blacks in America.
The doc is not too long either at 100 minutes. Excessive length for this type of film can discourage potential viewers. To keep its length in check, director Liz Garbus likely had to leave out some smaller parts of the performer’s life, like her first marriage to a beatnik in 1958, and her time living in Barbados.
Garbus mostly focuses on Simone’s abusive second husband Andrew Stroud, relying on an interview conducted with him in 2006. A former police detective, he left behind his career in law enforcement to become Simone’s manager. He also beat and at one point raped her.
Once you turn on WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE?, there’s no turning it off. You’ll see flashes of Kanye West in Miss Simone, but more importantly you’ll have your eyes opened to an important artist who deserves and demands your attention.