Oscars: 'What Happened, Miss Simone?' Director Liz Garbus On Exploring The Life Of A Musical Icon

Oscar nominee Liz Garbus has been interested in Nina Simone’s music since her college days. But it was as she explored the life of the troubled but talented singer that she realized there were a great many unanswered questions. She’d been invited to pitch as a director for the film that would become What Happened, Miss Simone?, which joins a crop of excellent music documentaries this year, and will challenge Asif Kapadia’s Amy amongst the others in the Documentary Feature Oscar race. What she turned up for the Netflix doc goes a great length towards explaining the complicated and brilliant woman whose songs defined a generation.

How much did the ground shift for you in your understanding of Nina Simone as you explored her life?

Certainly in the first dive before I pitched, I began to understand her classical music training. Once you begin to understand her ambitions as a classic pianist and the way in which her childhood put herself in this tightrope position between black and white communities, you can kind of understand something about her volatile relationship with her audience. Even when she was at the height of her popularity, in her mind it was never where she should have been. In her mind there’s this antagonistic relationship with the audience that was so part of her character. In the much deeper dive, which was a year long dive into the archival material, the issues around the domestic violence in her home, between her and her husband, and, in turn, her and her daughter, that is something that isn’t so out there and known. That deepened my understanding of who she was – that she experienced that kind of violence in her family and the effect that had. As an artist she was always inspiring. I work in a different medium, but that combination of honesty and complication that is in all of her work, that was an inspiration for me as a director.

She sang a song called “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”. How much responsibility did you feel to tell her story properly?

Whenever I would hear that song it was like a call from the grave. I’d be like, “OK, Nina, I got your back.” (laughs) I think it was wonderful having Lisa, her daughter, and Al, her guitarist who knew her like a sister, as advisors along the way, in terms of understanding Nina. Their embracing of the film has made me feel like I got her back and that she would want an honest portrait. We don’t pull our punches, but neither did Nina Simone. A lot of the stuff she talks about in terms of the domestic violence, she spoke on tape to her co-writer for her autobiography. To me, it was something that she wanted to share with the world so that they would appreciate and understand her more. There is a trainwreck version of a film about Nina Simone’s life, but it was important for me to show the love that I had for her, and the respect that I had for her, and in turn share that with her fans. The relationship people have with Nina in the world is very important.

At what point did you identify the ’76 concert at Montreux as being such a key event that it bookends the film?

 The ’76 concert came really early on, and I knew it would open the movie. The opening of that concert is such a mystery. To come back to it at the end, once you’ve gone through 90 minutes of understanding this woman’s life, you look at her so differently. We were searching for a very long time for a title for the film. I looked at all the great writers who had written about Nina. Ossie Davis read a brilliant eulogy at her funeral. And then finally a wonderful researcher came upon this fabulous 1970s article from Redbook that Maya Angelou had written, and in that article I found the title. That was very late in the process; we were down to the wire. They were on opposite ends of the decision-making pole, but because the opening scene was like a question—and Dr. Angelou was asking the same question—it seemed to fit.

There’s extraordinary footage of an interview with her second husband, Andy Stroud. Did you find that before you interviewed Lisa?

No. You talk about the surprises of research and discovery; there was no guarantee at all that we would have Andy’s voice in the film. When I started the film I didn’t want to shoot at all—I intended to go on a scavenger hunt around the world and collect as much as I could. We did that for six months before shooting a frame of footage. During that, very accidentally, somebody mentioned to me that Lisa and her father had sat for a documentary film that they decided to scrap. We were able to track down that producer and get those tapes. It turned out to be someone I knew quite well. It was an incredible find, because Andy was a key figure—if an antagonist—in her life.