There’s a certain feeling you get when you listen to a song by Nina Simone. It’s a little bit lazy, like the way you get on a hot and humid afternoon, or the languid groove that settles into your bones after a sip of smooth Tennessee whiskey. You know the feeling, don’t you? But, it’s not always that way. Nina could poke you and prod you to action, fire up the anger in your gut, make people stand aside, take notice and maybe run off like a dog kicked for no reason.
Music by Nina Simone can get under your skin like that, all the way into your soul.
The artist who enthralled audiences with songs like “I Loves You Porgy,” “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” and “I Put a Spell On You” has still been somewhat of an enigma to her fans. But now, a documentary film by Liz Garbus digs deep to find the truth behind the pain and the glory of her genius.
The Frank Morgan Taos Jazz Festival will present a free screening of the documentary film directed by Garbus titled “What Happened, Miss Simone?” tonight (Nov. 17) at the Taos Community Auditorium. Al Schackman, her longtime music director, guitarist and confidante will be on-hand for a Q&A after the film.
“What Happened, Miss Simone?” chronicles the tumultuous life of legendary jazz-pop artist Nina Simone from her early days singing gospel in the American South through her self-imposed exile in Europe.
In many ways, the inherent question at the opening of this film is posed by the title, a quote from Maya Angelou, but also by fans of this consummate singer-songwriter who thought they knew her, but maybe really didn’t. Called the “High Priestess of Soul,” Simone is often celebrated today as an artist with pipes of gold, but little is mentioned today of her forceful political activism or her struggles with spousal abuse, mental illness and battles in a music business that saw her as a marketable product — but only if she behaved.
Simone struggled for every inch of fame she enjoyed — literally fought tooth and nail, in some respects.
The film opened the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary. Combining never-before-seen archival concert and rehearsal footage and interviews with Simone’s daughter and friends, Garbus brings the artist to life in a classic documentary sense, meaning it works hard to be as accurate as possible, even if it depicts its subject in a sometimes unflattering light.
In some ways it shatters myths about the lengths some artists in the past have reacted to adversity through their work. Simone, for instance, was closely associated with some of the most ardent civil rights activists of her time. After the tragic assassination of Martin Luther King and others, Simone took the opposite of Dr. King’s philosophy of non-violent protest. Simone advocated literally taking up arms and fighting back, a position for which she suffered greatly, both personally and professionally.
There is unmistakable power behind that smokey, smooth voice. It is art, and that is all.
“What Happened, Miss Simone?” is not rated, but it does contain some language, sexual references, and period smoking.
This film will be screened at 7 p.m. today (Nov. 17) at the Taos Community Auditorium, 145 Paseo del Pueblo Norte. Admission is free.
For additional information, call the Taos Center for the Arts at (575) 758-2052 or visit tcataos.org.