What freedom is… Nina Simone

Last night I more or less idly began watching a documentary on Netflix about Nina Simone – and was right from the start transfixed by her words: “I’ll tell you what freedom is to me – no fear!”

From those opening comments in “What happened to you Miss Simone?” I was glued to the screen.  One of the words most used by the singer herself is “compelling” – and it fits her appearances.



Musically, she is electrifying: confident, powerful, emotional, unpredictable, distinctive.  Like all great artists in any genre (and this is something someone needs to tell warbly teenage wannabe popstars)

  • she inherited powerful art skills through her family (literature words and performance as her mother was a Bible preacher)
  • has invested depth into her art by years of studying and acquiring classical technique (classical piano study),
  • responding to her times and national culture (Civil Rights),
  • bringing in her most personal experiences, both painful and joyful
  • persistence through difficult times
  • having a deep spiritual aspect (she began leading worship in church aged 4),
  • befriending and discussing with leading cultural voices (poets, writers, political activists),
  • pulling from an eclectic range of styles (blues, jazz, classical, pop, Broadway, film tunes, folk songs),
  • authoring her own songs,
  • working hard for decades,
  • having something to say and saying it without compromise….

well, by the time you put all those ingredients together and look around for someone else carrying the same mix – you are looking at a handful of people.  And whether painters, writers, musicians – they are all world-class, astounding, generation-defining.

(another example would be Picasso – son of a painting tutor, by the time he was school-leaving age he had learnt, studied and absorbed all the skills and history of technique – in the next few years he developed through deep poverty and lifechanging tragedy (suicide of friend Casegemas and death from cancer of his main love) – and spent the rest of his life exploring how to paint what he felt, pulling on the past culture/spirituality of African tribal masks)

Back to Nina – she is a complex personality – and one of the strengths of this movie is that her daughter, Lisa, is involved in the project – who had a ringside seat and tells of the tough times but also, above all, plays tribute to her mother’s genius.  What I see of Lisa, I like.  Here she is, together with the film-maker Liz Garbarus, being interviewed by Whoopi Goldberg (the woman whom Nina wanted to play her in any film of her life).


“What happened to Miss Simone” is a terrific film.  Watch it if you can.  It was nominated for an Academy award (Oscar) for Best Documentary, Feature.  It picked up the Emmy for Outstanding Documentary – and was also nominated for nonfiction Directing, Cinematography and Sound Mixing.  Which is brilliant considering that the majority of the film are old recordings of Nina Simone where you are stuck with the quality of the original, with very little fresh filming yourself.

When Lisa Simone saw the first cut of the documentary, she responded by doing a little dance of joy, feeling that it truly showed her mother and thanking the Director.  Really – that’s enough accolades all around to merit watching this film.  Do not miss it.

Like all great movies, I am left wanting to know more about Nina, her daughter’s own work, the other movies made by the Director – and definitely to watch other films nominated in the same categories.  Ironically, in the Oscars, the film lost out to a documentary of a more recent soul singer legend, Amy (about Amy Winehouse).





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