Written by Erin Qualey
Erin Qualey is a staff writer for Netflix Life’s sister site Hidden Remote. You can also follow her on Twitter.
The Nina Simone documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone? is an intimate and moving portrait of manic depression, the fight for civil rights, and fame. Don’t let this gem languish in your queue – follow along with this cheat sheet!
Netflix has recently been delving into the world of original documentaries. It snapped up What Happened, Miss Simone at Sundance this year — and for good reason. Directed by documentary veteran Liz Garbus, the film is a carefully curated meditation on an impactful life. Nina basically tells her own story through video clips, audio samples, journal entries, and interviews. Those that were close to her — mainly her daughter, ex-husband, and guitarist — fill in the gaps.
Confession: It took me forever to sit down and watch this documentary. And I adore Nina Simone. For those of you who don’t know who Simone is, this documentary probably isn’t even on your radar — but it should be. The woman was a talented genius, blowing the world away with her vocal acrobatics and piano improvisation in an era where both women and African Americans were marginalized in society. No small feat before civil rights.
Admittedly, the film is a bit of a slow starter, but don’t worry, watching is a snap with our What Happened, Miss Simone Cheat Sheet. We’ll have you breezing through without missing a beat.
0:00 – The beginning of the movie. Obviously we’re not skipping ahead quite yet. The film starts off with a haunting shot of a haggard and vacant-looking Nina addressing an excited crowd. Something is clearly off. Nina is moving very slowly and has an odd expression on her face.
It’s an intriguing start. The film opens on a mystery, and fully fulfills that promise, so stick with us here.
Stay for the brief history on Nina’s life and experience with classical piano. Then, whenever you feel yourself drifting feel free to skip to….
21:00 – Hugh Hefner! Nina appears on TV on late night TV’s Playboy’s Penthouse. Watch as a young Hefner struts over to Simone at the piano and gives her a genuine introduction. (Interesting side tidbit: Hefner was an early champion of African Americans as writers and musicians. As Penthouse was privately owned, Hefner could have whomever he wanted on the show without worrying about losing precious advertising dollars. #TheMoreYouKnow)
Nina gets married, buys a house, and basically lives the American dream. Written letters, recordings, and family photographs flit by. It feels like a museum slowly unfolding on screen until…..
28:30 – Nina’s dream to be the first black female classic pianist to appear at Carnegie Hall is realized. Chills. Pictures interspersed with a recording of the event maximize the gravity of this historic and deeply personal moment.
The film picks up a bit here, showcasing a montage of Nina’s growing fame. She’s dubbed the “High Priestess of Soul” and is portrayed as being stoic and stiff in her televised performances. Nina’s personal life gets complicated, and she becomes increasingly mercurial as demand for her genius musical talent escalates. We’d recommend that you stick with the program here, but if you’re dying to skip ahead….
40:00 – Nina jumps into the activist fray with her über controversial song “Mississippi Goddamn.” She becomes a trusted confidant of both Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, among other African American luminaries at the time. If you’ve seen any historical film about the civil rights movement, this is relatively familiar territory. It’s worth revisiting if you’ve got the time, but if your FF finger is getting itchy….
60:00 – Nina gets political. She speaks about how she channeled her penchant for violence and anger into her music. The film segues into her classic, “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” as her demons are uncovered.
75:00 – An unexpected death sets Nina off, and she flees to Liberia, leaving her family behind. This sequence is riveting and reveals the tortured madness behind the brilliant exterior.
It becomes clear that Nina was never herself more than when she was performing. She was an artist who lived and sacrificed for her art. The remainder of the film is engaging, informative, and heartbreaking. You’ve made it this far, come just a bit further. Enjoy the ride, and let us know your thoughts!
What Happened, Miss Simone is currently available to stream on Netflix.