Liz Garbus' "What Happened, Miss Simone?" begins with footage of Nina Simone taking the stage at the 1976 Montreaux Jazz Festival. It was a performance that simultaneously represented a comeback from self-imposed exile for the iconic chanteuse, but also has been used as an example of the mercurial, erratic and occasionally bizarre work that characterized the middle of Simone's career.
Simone stands in front of her piano and takes a prolonged bow. She stares into the audience and seemingly off into space. There's almost no way to read her. Is she embracing the applause? Is she alienated in the spotlight? Is this her dream? Is it her nightmare?
It's a perfect prelude to the film's title, which comes from a 1970 Redbook piece by Maya Angelou.
That enigmatic opening and the interrogative title lead, somewhat disappointingly, into a rather conventional cradle-to-the-grave documentary.
But even if there's a sense that a woman as uncontainable as Nina Simone deserved a documentary less eager to contain her in easy-to-understand terms, "What Happened, Miss Simone?" remains engaging by virtue of the wealth of archival and concert footage Garbus has assembled.
One of the Opening Night films at this year's Sundance Film Festival, "What Happened, Miss Simone?" is screening out-of-competition here and will premiere on Netflix this spring.
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