Through archival footage and interviews with her family, closest confidants and collaborators, Nina Simone comes to life again — still enigmatic but more easily understood — in the new documentary "What Happened, Miss Simone?" which premiered Thursday night at the Sundance Film Festival.
A classically trained pianist, accidental singer, passionate activist and often-lost soul, Simone's many facets are illuminated in the film by director Liz Garbus, whose first film played at Sundance 16 years ago.
"This is the film I've been practicing to make all these years," Garbus said before the screening.
The film opens with Simone onstage in 1968, just before her self-imposed exile to Liberia, then goes back to her childhood piano lessons. She took instantly to piano as a young girl, catching the notice of a white teacher who offered to provide lessons. Still known then by her given name, Eunice Waymon, she is shown walking across the train tracks that separated whites from blacks in her North Carolina hometown to reach the teacher's home.
Eunice Waymon dreamed of becoming the first black classical pianist in the United States, and she saw herself at Carnegie Hall — until she was denied admittance to the Curtis Institute of Music because of her race.
That denial turned her into an entertainer. She started playing in bars to make a living, and the managers there required her to sing. Before long, she was playing at the Newport Jazz Festival, and, eventually, Carnegie Hall.
Still, she felt a profound emptiness, reflected in her journal entries included in the film. She was lonely and depressed, and her husband and manager, Andrew Stroud, was abusive.
Simone found purpose in the civil rights movement, and realized she could use her fame and talents to support the fight for equality.
"I could sing to help my people," she says in the film, "and that became the mainstay of my life."
"What Happened, Miss Simone?" — the title taken from a Maya Angelou quote — tells the story of a troubled, gifted and passionate woman who found her voice in music. She was fervent about the dignity of African-Americans and fought staunchly for equality.
Simone's songs for justice are just as relevant now, the film's director said.
"If we had voices like Nina Simone's today, speaking the pain and the passion of the movement that's been building, I think, on the streets in the past six months..." Garbus said, "I think we can all see the place of these songs today."