It’s amazing to think about the many ways Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” has been interpreted in the decades since she released it in 1965.
Weight Watchers attempted to turn it into an anthem of triumph for overcoming the body’s stubborn resistance to shrinking itself. A svelte Jennifer Hudson appeared in nationally-televised commercials, singing about how she’d defeated the demon of fat.
Last week came a new version of “Feeling Good,” this time from Lauryn Hill.
The track circulated widely last Thursday, the day after the racially-motivated murders that occurred at the Emmanuel A.M.E. in Charleston, S.C., one of the oldest black churches in the country.
In the context of the day, Hill’s cover was especially haunting. There’s the a cappella opening: birds flying high, you know how I feel. Instantly, she’s hooked you, because even though this is a song about freedom, a hint of melancholy hangs in each note. Her voice teases at the suggestion that it might break. In Hill’s phrasing, desperation lingers, as though she’s willing herself toward happiness as she sings, not quite convinced if she’ll complete the journey. By the time she reaches the bridge, she’s dragging herself there, and us with her, her voice heavy with emotion.
The lyrics seemed particularly cruel.
It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day. It’s a new life, for me.
Except nothing was new. The nation sat agog, absorbing the tragedy of a racist attack that called back to the 1963 bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala, still waiting for its new dawn.
At one point in “What Happened, Miss Simone?,” the new documentary from director Liz Garbus, Simone, talking to a reporter in the 1980s and sounding particularly defeated, laments that there are no reasons to sing the songs she recorded when she was heavily involved in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
“I wouldn’t change being part of the civil rights movement,” Simone said. “I wouldn’t change that. But some of the songs I have sung have hurt my career. All of the controversial songs, the industry decided to punish me for and they put a boycott on all my records and it’s hard for me to incorporate those songs anymore because they are not relevant to the times.
“There aren’t any civil rights. There is no reason to sing those songs. Nothing is happening. There is no civil rights movement. Everybody’s gone.”
When the film premiered in New York a few weeks ago, Hill performed four songs after the screening.
“She was mind-blowing,” Garbus said. “She was amazing.”
Hill is a longtime admirer of Simone.
“So while you’re imitating Al Capone/ I’ll be Nina Simone / And defecating on your microphone,” she rapped on the 1996 Fugees track “Ready or Not.”
Like Simone, Hill strikes many as somewhat odd and complicated, someone who refuses to hew to convention, even when that convention is say, not starting concerts four hours late.
“Watching Lauryn perform the other night, it was a bit like watching someone perform on a tightrope act,” Garbus said. “You don’t know what’s going to happen. Lauryn — she possesses a brilliance and a musical innovation that, I think, Nina had as well, and also an intensity of character and spirit which can lead to a lot of mystery and volatility. One of the reasons it was so thrilling to watch Nina Simone in concert was it was that kind of theater. You never knew what was going to happen next. Were they just going to walk off the stage? Were they going to start talking to you and stop her singing? You just didn’t know. It’s a kind of theater and I think Lauryn does come out of that spirit as well.”
“What Happened, Miss Simone?” offers an unvarnished look at the singer’s life and her struggles with manic depression and domestic violence, as well as her contributions to the civil rights movement. Garbus has condensed more than 100 hours of archival footage, diary entries, family interviews (including daughter Lisa Simone) and radio and television interviews into a narrative of Simone’s life.
The documentary stands in stark contrast to “Nina,” a biopic starring Zoë Saldana as Simone that is due to be released later this year and did not have the cooperation of Nina Simone’s estate. Simone fans balked at Saldana’s casting from the start, and when photos emerged showing the actress in makeup to darken her skin, things only worsened. It would seem Saldana has embarked on a new wave of damage control, telling InStyle, “I didn’t think I was right for the part, and I know a lot of people will agree, but then again, I don’t think Elizabeth Taylor was right for Cleopatra either.”
However, it’s clear from Lisa Simone’s candid interviews in the documentary that Garbus gained her trust.
“I think [Lisa] was really ready at this time in her life to let her mother’s story be told as a documentary and release herself into someone’s hands on that level,” Garbus said. “I think there have been many projects pitched over the years telling Nina’s story and for various reasons, neither Lisa nor the estate were at the right place for that. I think that our meeting came at the right time. I think Lisa felt maybe because of a biopic coming out, it was time to let Nina be out as Nina. Of course, I needed to have creative control and work independently as a filmmaker, which I was able to do, but I met Lisa and I listened to her, and I listened to the story of her mother. She was very honest and forthright about her mother’s brilliance and her mother’s failings.
“I showed her the film before we went to Sundance with it and she was completely trusting. She had no notes, didn’t want to veto anything. She just said, ‘now Mommy’s story has been told and I can kind of move on.'”
“What Happened, Miss Simone?” is playing in select theaters and begins streaming on Netflix Friday at midnight. You can listen to Hill’s cover of “Feeling Good” below.