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Nina Simone's Daughter Says This Film Gets Her Mom's Story Straight
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Nina Simone's Daughter Says This Film Gets Her Mom's Story Straight

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Nina Simone's Daughter Says This Film Gets Her Mom's Story Straight

Nina Simone's Daughter Says This Film Gets Her Mom's Story Straight
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The Grammy and Oscar-nominated documentary "What Happened, Nina Simone?" depicts the musician's downward spiral. NPR's Michel Martin interviews daughter Lisa Simone Kelly and director Liz Garbus.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're spending part of this weekend looking ahead to the Oscars, just two weeks away now. Yesterday, we heard from nominees in the film editing category. Today, we hear about a nominee for Best Documentary Feature. It's about one of the most distinctive musical voices of the 1960s.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BACKLASH BLUES")

NINA SIMONE: (Singing) Mr. backlash, Mr. backlash, just who do you think I am? You raise my taxes, freeze my wages and send my son to Vietnam.

MARTIN: Nina Simone was a gifted and prolific singer, songwriter and pianist who became a powerful presence in the civil rights movement and paid a professional price for it. Behind the scenes, she struggled in a fractious, sometimes violent relationship with her husband and manager and with mental health issues that strained other relationships, including with her only daughter. The film is called "What Happened, Miss Simone? Liz Garbus is the director, and Lisa Simone Kelly is the executive producer and the daughter of Nina Simone. Our conversation touched on some sensitive subjects, so please consider who's listening for the next few minutes. And I started by asking Lisa Simone Kelly about things that other biographers may have gotten wrong that she wanted to be sure the film got right.

LISA SIMONE KELLY: The fact that she was a classical musician is often something that was overlooked, ignored or just - people just didn't know. So when I first met Liz, the only caveat that I had was that I wanted the world to know that she was a classical musician first and foremost.

MARTIN: And the film goes deep into her backstory and to her psyche. I think it's fair to say that she was a prodigy. Here's a clip of her from the film talking about her early love of classical piano but how being a little black girl, you know, from North Carolina with no money shaped her choices. I'll just play that short clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE?")

SIMONE: And then I applied for a scholarship to Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. I knew I was good enough, but they turned me down. And it took me about six months to realize it was because I was black. I never really got over that jolt of racism at the time.

MARTIN: Liz, did you want to talk about that, how that set her kind of on a path?

KELLY: I often wonder if mommy had become a classical artist if the contributions and sacrifices that we are all benefiting from now would have actually happened.

MARTIN: Liz, what about you?

LIZ GARBUS: Well, it's so interesting. I mean, I think that she's, you know, put in this role of the, quote, unquote, "jazz singer," which is a moniker she never embraced. You know, and the fact that she had to start playing in clubs and sing because her parents had moved north to support her music education. You know, so she had to sing. She had to make a living 'cause she was supporting her family. So poverty and race put her in this place which, you know, created enormous success, but it's not what her psyche was all about.

MARTIN: You mentioned she never really loved the term jazz singer. But she had a wide range of material - jazz and then blues and, you know, popular. And then one of her big hits was from "Porgy And Bess" and then what people call protest songs. And I'm going to play perhaps the most famous, which is "Mississippi Goddam."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MISSISSIPPI GODDAM")

SIMONE: (Singing) Alabama's got me so upset. Tennessee made me lose my rest. And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam.

KELLY: Mom said that when those four little girls were blown up in the church, something in her snapped. And this song just came out of her. And I equate my mother's career into two halves. You have where she was singing love songs and she was just really relaxed or appeared to be that way. And then you have the period where she got mad, which she never came back from as far as I'm concerned. And even when you see the way she's singing the protest songs, she's much more forceful in her delivery. And you can see the veins in her neck.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MISSISSIPPI GODDAM")

SIMONE: (Singing) And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddamn.

GARBUS: Dick Gregory said, you know, we all wanted to sing "Mississippi Goddam." But none of us said it. She said it. And the power that that had, it's extraordinary. The thing about what happened after the Super Bowl, Beyonce getting the backlash that she got today - so think about the reaction that Nina would have had in 1963.

MARTIN: To that end though, the film pulls no punches, not just about the political and, you know, the professional struggles that she had but also about the personal ones, which were connected in some ways, as the film sort of makes clear. I mean, it talks about the fact that, you know, Lisa, your dad - who was also her manager - they had a very difficult relationship. The film makes the case that, you know, he was abusive to her at points.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE?")

SIMONE: Andrew protected me against everybody but himself. He wrapped himself around me like a snake. I worked like a dog, and I was scared of him.

MARTIN: The film does interview him and gives his perspective on it.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE?")

ANDREW STROUD: We're going home in the car, I'm driving, and I - I slapped her. Blood spurted - (unintelligible) she had, like, a 1-inch cut from my ring.

MARTIN: I'm curious about the discussions that the two of you have had about how to handle that material.

KELLY: It's a part of my truth. It's a part of my family's truth. You know, whether you want to talk about it or not, it happened. And it helped to shape and mold a lot of decisions that my mother made - for example, to divorce him (laughter). So - but at the same time, one thing that people tend to forget because they get so caught up in the fact that my parents had a volatile relationship is that it was the two of them that rose my mother to the point where she was at Carnegie Hall. It took them coming together and combining their brilliance in order for my mother's dream to be realized. Here we are.

GARBUS: I do think, as Lisa said, to understand Nina and her career and the times, we need to understand her prime antagonist, which was her husband at that time.

MARTIN: The last clip I want to play is from the later years of her life, when she had a comeback maybe would the way to say it, where she is - she at one point interrupts herself to demand that somebody sit down.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE?")

SIMONE: (Singing) Stars they come and go. They come fast they come slow. They go like the last light of the sun all in a blaze.

Hey girl, sit down. Sit down.

(CROSSTALK)

SIMONE: Sit down.

KELLY: Can you imagine being her kid? You know, it's like I just have to say that. I'm just going to lighten this up for a second because there's so many embarrassing moments that I've had with my mom. And so when I see that scene, I actually started laughing. It takes a lot of courage just to tell somebody from the stage you need to sit your bottom down.

MARTIN: How would she have dealt with the cellphone era, the smartphone era where people...

KELLY: Can you imagine?

MARTIN: ...Are all taking pictures? I don't know what would've happened. Oh, my God.

KELLY: Can you imagine?

GARBUS: And what would happen with Nina Simone on Twitter? Whoa...

KELLY: Oh.

MARTIN: Oh.

GARBUS: We would all hear some truth, yeah that would be...

KELLY: I think mom would have her own reality show. I think she'd have probably one of the most popular reality shows on TV right now.

MARTIN: (Laughter) Lisa, before we let you go, what do you hope people will draw from this? There's so many threads here, including the question of mental illness and how we see it and when do we recognize it.

KELLY: My mother sacrificed on so many levels, beginning with her heart. The kind of people that were in her life - my father, for example - that were supposed to protect her was not there. And the fact that no matter what, I think my mom is probably one of the most courageous people I've ever known.

MARTIN: Do you mind if I ask, how are you? How are you know? It wasn't easy for you either. I mean, the film makes the point, you know, she could be brutal in her relationship with you. And that has to carry some - there have to be some scars from that. How are you?

KELLY: I'm excellent. (Laughter) I am proud to carry on my mother's legacy, and I stand upon her shoulders. I had to find my own path. And in finding my path, I had to learn how to forgive. And in order to forgive, I had to be aware there was something that needed to be forgiven.

(SOUNDBITE OF NINA SIMONE SONG, "I WISH I KNEW HOW IT WOULD FEEL TO BE FREE")

MARTIN: Lisa Simone Kelly is the executive producer and Liz Garbus is the director of the documentary "What Happened, Miss Simone? It's been nominated for a Grammy, which is tomorrow night, and an Oscar later this month. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

KELLY: Thank you.

GARBUS: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WISH I KNEW HOW IT WOULD FEEL TO BE FREE")

SIMONE: (Singing) I wish I knew how it would feel to be free. I wish I could break all the chains holding me.

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