‘She is loved or feared, adored or disliked, but few who have met her music or glimpsed her soul react with moderation. She is an extremist, extremely realized.” That is how Maya Angelou described Nina Simone. And when you watch Liz Garbus’s brilliant documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone? as you absolutely should, those words will ring with truth and accuracy. And then, as you hear Simone’s own words, discovered by Garbus in recordings that no-one knew existed, and those of her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, as she speaks about a life lived with a mother who was as tortured as she was brilliant, as volatile as she was loving, you will find yourself wondering how we have known so little about a woman whose music we know so well?
Do you remember the first time you ever heard a Nina Simone song? I don’t. I’ve been trying to, but the truth is I think I was too young to recall. There were several of her albums in my dad’s collection of vinyl, most of which were bevelled, some of which were beer-stained, all of which were loved. They were played often and that singular voice (“Sometimes I sound like gravel and sometimes I sound like coffee and cream,” is how Simone herself put it) was both unmistakable and unforgettable. Of course, like most people I probably heard My Baby Just Cares For Me most often after it was used in an advert, but the tracks that lingered were Ne Me Quitte Pas and Strange Fruit and Little Girl Blue with its heady, genre-bending classical piano accompaniment – Simone giving full flight to her musical genius – and, of course, Mississippi Goddam. Think of the lyrics of that song, “Alabama’s got me so upset, Tennessee has made me lose my rest and everybody knows about Mississippi, goddam…” It was the 60s, the height of the civil rights movement and Simone was doing what pretty much no-one else was – singing her protest, talking about the terror and the violence and in that song specifically the murder of four little girls in a church in Mississippi by a white supremacist who lobbed an bomb into the building where they sat. How strange that as I sit writing this, news has just broken about nine people killed in a church in Charleston, South Carolina. They were black. The man arrested in connection with the killings, a 21-year-old white man who had photographs on his Facebook page of him wearing a jacket adorned with the flags of white-rule-era African states. What a horrible, depressing symmetry.
But I’m moving too fast, skipping over a life story that is as complex as it is compelling. Eunice Waymon was born in North Carolina in 1933, the era of segregation. Taken to church by her preacher mother, it was there she first played the piano at the age of three or four. By the time she was seven she was accomplished enough to give a recital and by way of two white women in the congregation who were impressed by what they heard, Waymon began five years of intense piano tuition and the dream of being the first black female classical pianist to play at Carnegie Hall was born. After graduation and a year at Juilliard in New York, she applied to the Curtis Institute of Music to continue her studies. She was rejected. The reason, not stated on the rejection letter, was nothing to do with her talent or her potential, it was the colour of her skin. It was a blow that reverberated throughout her life but before that, it sent her from practice rooms where she was immersed in Bach and Brahms, Liszt and Schumann, to the bars of Atlantic City where she renamed herself Nina Simone (to prevent her mother from realising what she was doing) and sang standards and spirituals and built a reputation as an extraordinary musician, but one who, in some ways, would never quite be understood.
“I feel like a huge weight has been lifted from my shoulders that I had no idea was there until it was gone,” says Lisa Simone Kelly, Simone’s only daughter, about the process of bringing her mother’s complex life to the screen. “I made my mother a promise on her deathbed that I had her back and I asked when I spoke at various memorials to make sure that she was not forgotten. I made a promise to myself that I wanted my mother to live on in infinity at the same height as the Beatles and Elvis Presley. And I do believe that I’ve accomplished that so I’m feeling very satisfied right now.
“I’m all grown up now. When my mom died [in 2003, at the age of 70] my relationship to who I am and life and my world shifted. I can say that I am a much different person than I was 12 years ago. And it feels really good to be back out into the light because it’s been a tough 12 years.”
It took Simone Kelly and her husband, Rob Kelly, “about ten years” to find the right director and team to make this film. They chose Garbus, who had already made documentaries about prisons in the US, chess master Bobby Fisher and movie star Marilyn Monroe. It was this back catalogue that made Garbus feel that she had been “practising her whole life” to make a film about Simone. “Nina Simone is one of the most complex characters I could tackle,” she says. “The challenge and the joy of the film was exploring those contradictions and I think without including them, all those facets of her personality, there’d be no way to really appreciate and understand her.”
Garbus credits Simone Kelly for being “incredibly brave” in how she allowed the filmmaker access to her life. “She shared the darkest moments of her life, the most intimate recollections. She turned it over to me. There were no parameters – there was no ‘don’t include this’ or ‘if you put this in you have to put that in’. She really just opened herself and trusted and that’s quite an extraordinary. I’m not sure I’d be able to be that brave about my own family life.”
When I ask Simone Kelly about why she felt it was important to be that open and whether she understands it as courageous, there is a pause. “I didn’t really give it that much thought,” she says eventually with a small laugh, which becomes much bigger. “I wasn’t afraid to open the doors to the inner sanctum. It was about who I trusted enough to do that with, but at the end of the day you have to trust someone. I had to entrust my heart, my mother, our relationship, you know, that’s my mom, I’m the only person on the earth who calls Nina Simone mommy, but we all have mothers so everybody can relate to what I’m saying.”
There was just one caveat. “My mother wanted to be remembered as a classical artist, that’s all I asked.”
When she watched the first edit of the documentary she “danced around the room”. “I had no idea my dad was in it. I had no idea Al Shackman [Simone’s long time guitarist and musical director] was in it. I watched it with my daughter and I felt that weight lift from my shoulders. I knew finally my job was done. I don’t have to defend any more. I don’t have to educate. I don’t have to justify any more. It’s a wonderful feeling to have that sense of accomplishment and to know that the job has been done well.”
Meticulously researched and utterly unflinching, Garbus’ film doesn’t shy away from the difficult, complicated stuff of Simone’s life – mental illness, a tempestuous marriage to a former cop, Andrew Stroud, who became her manager as well as her abuser. “You have to understand the relationship between Andy and Nina to understand Nina Simone,” says Garbus. “It was key to understanding what was happening to Nina in the 1960s, her commitment to the civil rights movement and how it drove a further wedge in her marriage. You can judge Andy for yourself. Putting him in the film doesn’t mean that what he did was OK. People say it’s a warts and all portrait but actually I think it makes us appreciate her music even more. You hear everything’s she’s been through when you listen to her music.”
Some of the most poignant and moving moments of the film are when Simone Kelly recalls her own difficult, at times violent, treatment at the hands of her mother. Again, it seems brave to have shared such painful memories. When Garbus interviewed her it took about three hours. At the start she felt steady and stable. “Girl, about an hour into that, I started breaking down. A lot of time you think things don’t bother you or you think that you’re healed or you’ve made a lot of progress and then you realise that you haven’t come as far as you thought you had and there’s still a long way to go. In those three hours, many ghosts had been resurrected and I couldn’t shut them off. By the time I got home I couldn’t even sit with my family, I had to go into a room and try to get myself together. It was hard.”
In periods when Simone Kelly was estranged from her mother, she would listen to her music. It was a way of having her around, of being in her life. I ask if she still listens to those songs. “Always. Always,” she answers. “I still cry a lot.” She stops as her upset wells up. “My heart has not healed. I miss my mom. I wish I could sit with her now in the place that I live in my heart and spirit now. When you’re a child, or a child in a grown up’s body it’s always blame, blame, blame. You did this or that. But when you are forced to grow up you have a much broader perspective and much more compassion.
“My mom thought that I didn’t play her music. She came to visit once and we went into the studio. I had my own Nina Simone request line, she would play and I’d sing. She was surprised that I knew all of her songs. She said, ‘I didn’t think you played my music’ and I was like, of course I played it, it was all I had of you with me. I listened to those songs over and over.”
• What Happened, Miss Simone? is available on Netflix from 26 June