“I don’t think you have a choice. How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?” asked Nina Simone in an interview featured in Liz Garbus’s documentary “What Happened, Miss Simone?”
Nina Simone, who died at age 70 in 2003, was a complicated woman. She was a classically trained pianist, blues and jazz singer and black power icon. Her anger – often justified – and her outspoken comments at times landed her in hot water and negatively affected her career.
The documentary portrays a musical genius, but also a troubled artist who at a particular low in her career performed in a Parisian dive bar. Constrained by racism and her own inner demons – Simone was diagnosed late in life with bipolar disorder – her career had ups and downs.
The documentary chronicles Simone’s life and career, featuring never-before-heard recordings and archival footage that feature some of the artist’s most famous songs and performances. There are also interviews with Simone’s longtime backup artists, along with Simone’s ex-husband Andrew Stroud, a former cop, who successfully managed her career, but also beat her.
Neither Stroud nor Simone’s daughter attended the New York premiere of “What Happened, Miss Simone?,” which took place last week at the Apollo Theater. Presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Netflix (the documentary airs on Netflix June 26), A-listers who attended the starry premiere included John Leguizamo, Sandra Bernhard, S. Epatha Merkerson, Usher, Barbara Kopple, Gina Belafonte, Ilyasah Shabazz and D.A. Pennebaker.
Following the screening, former Fugees singer Lauryn Hill performed rousing renditions of signature Simone songs, including “Ne Me Quitte Pas” and “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair.”
In a flowing white outfit, Hill seemed to channel the legendary singer as she sang, swayed and lead the orchestra in her nearly 45-minute set.
Hill also introduced the terrific singer Jazmine Sullivan, who sang Randy Newman’s 1977 song “Baltimore,” a tune Simone memorialized, and with the city’s current problems, seems as timely as ever.
“Baltimore” is included in a tribute album timed for release in conjunction with the documentary, which includes performances by the artists Hill, Common, Usher, Mary J. Blige and Simone’s daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, a singer who also appears in the documentary and provides some of the film’s most poignant moments and insights into her mother’s life and career.
The evening ended with “African Mailman” – an instrumental number associated with Simone – that showcased the band with featured solos by the drummer, violinist and a backup singer, all lead and directed by Lauryn Hill, who proved to be a perfectionist and terrific bandleader.
The Oscar nominated director (“The Farm: Angola,” 1998), told me on the red carpet before the screening that she was always a fan of Simone’s music but knew almost nothing about her personal life. She marveled that you could watch Simone sing the same song at 15 different performances and each time she would sing it differently.
As for what she hopes viewers will take away from the film, Garbus told me, “I want them to listen to her music all over again, and for that listener, it will be a delicious experience because you’re going to know what this woman went through and what she was bringing to that music.”