In 2008, I was captivated by the trailer for “Revolutionary Road,” due in large part to the music chosen to augment its effect: Nina Simone’s “Wild is The Wind.” Ever since then, I have continually returned to her work when I am in need of haunting by art. Her raspy, husky serenading has an effect unmatched by any performing today.
The continual problem with art about artists is that the new work always has to measure up to that of the subject. Such is the case of Liz Garbus’ documentary “What Happened, Miss Simone?” It’s an informative look at this singular blues singer through the lens of her art, politics and personality. But does anything in Garbus’ narrative come close to approximating the raw power of just absorbing one of Simone’s songs? The answer there is no.
In a way, the film’s shortcomings are foreshadowed in its title. Garbus is preoccupied with the “what” of Simone, dutifully tracing a chronological story of her life from cradle to grave. “What Happened, Miss Simone?” is practically her Wikipedia page as a movie, with the occasional click away to events or personalities with which she frequently interacted. The film stays fairly surface-level throughout, never really interrogating the art or the society that spawned it. I so craved a foray into the “who” or the “why” questions that her music raises. Guess I’ll just have to keep listening there to find the answers. B /