An engaging new documentary illuminates jazz singer’s life
By Bliss Bowen
In music’s time-space continuum, Billie Holiday, who died in 1959, remains an ageless titan. Her lifelong defiance of authority is the stuff of legend, and singers and musicians still emulate her note-bending, time-teasing style. Seeing Holiday parse beats onstage while appraisingly sliding her eyes across audiences is one of the joys of James Erskine’s 96-minute documentary “Billie,” now streaming on Amazon and iTunes. (A DVD is due in February.)
Those performances alone make the film worth viewing; the somewhat controversial decision to restore several in color enhances the timelessness of her music and wit. Thanks to enduring public fascination with Holiday, born Eleanor Fagan in 1915, her life story has already been hashed out in books, documentaries, and films (including Lee Daniels’ forthcoming “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” starring Andra Day).
What distinguishes Erskine’s film are interviews with the likes of Count Basie, Tony Bennett, Charles Mingus, and singers Billy Eckstine and Sylvia Syms (who recalls Holiday’s stagecraft, and clubs “packed with hero worshippers”), conducted in the late 1960s and early ’70s by sometime journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl for an unfinished biography. Erskine closely tracks a manuscript left behind by Kuehl, who died in 1978 after a fall from a hotel balcony that police ruled a suicide, and her family suspects was murder.
Kuehl’s interviews are the film’s chief discoveries, and her charged exchanges with Basie sharpen its drama. Questions raised about their relationship lead to conspiratorial hypothesizing that doesn’t mesh evenly with Holiday’s storyline. They do, however, cast harsh light on racial injustice, then and now—a meaningful thread throughout the film as Kuehl’s research draws connections between Holiday’s career and the emergent civil rights movement.
Her probing questions seek the contradictory, flesh-and-blood woman behind the myth: What were Billie’s favorite words? (Profanities.) Was she “one of the boys”? Who did she like to sit with on the tour bus? Did management make Holiday blacken her face when performing in the South? How much was she earning? What drove her addictions? Was she confident about her voice?
Her voiceover observations about Holiday’s abusive lovers are insightful: “She always chose them for a reason. They played for her, they protected her, and, in the man’s world of the nightclubs, they allowed her to do the one thing that mattered, which was to sing. Music didn’t bring Billie to Harlem, but it was her voice that would allow her to escape.” Her recollection of first hearing that voice—“a strange voice that was more real and true than anything I’d ever heard before … wailed huskily from some netherworld”—echoes many a fan’s experience.
Holiday herself is heard in resurrected radio interviews. In one, she traces the genesis of her classic “God Bless the Child” to an argument with her mother and her realization “that’s a good title for a song”; in another, she speaks her “Don’t Explain” lyric aloud like a poem. She also recalls offended patrons exiting clubs when she sang her anti-lynching signature, Lewis Allan’s “Strange Fruit;” producer Milt Gabler says Columbia didn’t want to record it, due to its controversial “social content.” Kuehl says Holiday’s interpretation, not the song itself, “changed the direction of American music,” and refusal to stop singing it made her a “high-profile target” for the Bureau of Narcotics.
A bony Holiday sings the song in a colorized segment from the end of her career, delivering the lyric as a spectral ode, with minimal piano accompaniment. Her voice husky and ravaged, eyes smoldering like twin coals, it’s a performance that still disturbs.
To learn more about “Billie,” visit greenwichentertainment.com/film/billie