A record producer by trade, Jayson Jackson’s first film project is What Happened, Miss Simone?, a frank and intimate exploration of Nina Simone. We sat down with Jackson at the end of Sheffield Doc/Fest to chat about Nina’s life, the timely nature of the film, and producing an original documentary for Netflix.
Can you tell me first of all how you became involved with [director] Liz Garbus and with this project?
About four years ago a friend introduced me to Lisa Simone, Nina’s daughter, under the auspices of doing a stage play about Nina’s life. I’ve produced some theatre in the past, and they thought I’d be a good fit. But as I started to do research, I realised that she’s lived so many different lives, and a stage play would not do it any kind of justice. Theatre has a very specific audience, and I felt like there was so much depth to her story that doing a documentary would be a great place to start. Luckily, they agreed.
You talk to some people who were very close to Nina, like her daughter and her former session guitarist. How difficult was it to approach those people?
Well, there’s a reason there hasn’t been a comprehensive documentary done about Nina before, ever. As I started to walk down this road, I found out why. The people who are closest to her and who love her also protect her fiercely. There were a lot of attempts to do documentaries, not necessarily for the right reasons. When Nina and her husband [Andrew Stroud] split, for many years after that he attempted to get a documentary done but she wouldn’t sign off on it. Nina herself tried to get something done, but that didn’t pan out either. Really, the relationship with Lisa is what got her involved. Al Shackman, Nina’s long-time musical director, he didn’t want to be involved, and it’s a testament to Liz Garbus’ talent and her tenacity that she kept after him for months after he initially refused.
You were able to paint a very intimate picture thanks to Nina’s diaries – was it difficult to get hold of those?
It was a really long, tough process, and the way they came about was really odd. Lisa had them for a short time because apparently her father had literally sold them to her. Nina’s estate was highly contentious, her husband felt entitled to particular things and her daughter inherited a lot of things. Reading them was shocking, because Nina wrote meticulous notes. She wrote on napkins, on newspapers, on hotel pads – she wrote everything down. The other big revelation – when we knew we had a film – was when one of the other producers, Amy Hobby, who had done the bulk of the research, found that Nina’s biography writer had audiotapes of her. She flew to the French Pyrenees to dig through all of the stuff in his basement to find them, and she called us and said “we have a film.” That’s when we realised we had something special.
Liz said to us “Let’s not plan a story. Let’s just go out there and get footage, and see what we find.” And that’s exactly what we did. We didn’t write a script, we just said we would find everything that exists and let the story tell itself.
In a sense, Nina is the narrator, and there’s a huge cross-section of her music in the film – not just the familiar hits.
When you think about it, she was an amazing musician. She was able to play in any genre, and insert herself – her story, her pain – into any genre that she chose. She’s unique in that way, as a musician. Again, I tip my hat to Liz Garbus, because Liz made the decision to use the music that tells her story along with the audio. I think that’s what makes the film special; every song has a place in her life. Even the songs that she covered, she made them her own because she heard them. She understood what the writers were trying to say, in some cases better than the original writers.
There’s a huge political element to Nina’s life and her personality – do you think people will be surprised by the strength of her convictions?
Definitely. I’m a child of the Civil Rights movement and I was surprised. I had no idea how deep into it she was. I mean, I knew about her song ‘Mississippi, Goddam’ and all that, but the extent to which she had a voice – I did not know. It’s the equivalent of Beyoncé turning around and declaring that she’s only going to sing protest songs about the way people of colour are being treated in America. It was shocking to see just how far she went.
Given what’s happening in the States right now, do you think she would be singing the same songs again if she were alive today?
I think she would just be incredibly sad. She took her art so personally. I mean, she said in the film: “How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?”, which is interestingly the quote that John Legend used when he accepted the Academy Award for Selma. We actually made an accompanying soundtrack for the film, where we had contemporary artists covering Nina’s classics, and while we were making it these things were all happening. We were actually recording ‘Mississippi, Goddam’ when Ferguson happened, and then we covered Nina’s song ‘Baltimore’ and two weeks later stuff went down in Baltimore. It was mind-blowing. She’s as potent in death as she was in life.
What do you hope people will take away from the film?
I know people are going to learn something new about Nina Simone, but my hope – because I came from the music business originally – has always been that people will walk away with a more profound respect for the honest artists of our times, the ones who wear their emotions on their sleeves and play their lives out on the world stage through music. Because with that we’d have been able to appreciate Nina more while she was alive. Musicians are appreciated for what they do, but they’re deeply misunderstood.
How did you end up striking a deal with Netflix? As a producer, is it a different relationship to the one you’d have with other film distributors?
I think it was all about timing. We’d met with the normal distributors out there, and Netflix was aggressive from the beginning. This is going to be their first original documentary. Everything else they’ve put out so far has been acquisitioned, but they were involved with this from the very beginning. I think it says a lot about them, and it says a lot about Nina that they chose this to be the first film they produced. In the UK you have a dearth of channels to watch great documentaries. In the States there’s PBS and a few other places, but you have to go to Netflix, it’s the prime source for quality documentaries, and we’re honoured to be their first original documentary.
One last question. You’ve been working on this project for four years – if you had the chance to ask Nina Simone one question, what would it be?
I’ve spent so much time with artists… I think that I would ask Nina what her goal was. What did she want to say? What did she want to be known for? Because she did so much, in so many different areas. Maybe she said it – maybe she just wanted to be an artist that reflected her time. And she certainly was that.
What Happened, Miss Simone? will be available to stream on Netflix from June 26. The interview with Jayson Jackson was kindly provided by Sheffield Doc/Fest and Premier Comms.