Film review

‘Billie’ – Documentary Film, Directed by James Erskine

Billie
(Documentary Film, directed by James Erskine. New Black Films. 96 Minutes. Film review by Tessa Souter)

It is a testament to the depth and emotional intensity of Billie Holiday’s artistry that, over 60 years after her death, she still fascinates. She has been the subject of more than 25 biographies, including her memoir Lady Sings the Blues; a movie starring Diana Ross; a musical, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill; at least ten documentaries (on YouTube alone); and countless interviews and movie clips. And now we have Billie, a new film by James Erskine (This Is Football; Le Mans: Racing is Everything; Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist).

So what on earth don’t we already know about Billie Holiday? Well, not much, it turns out. And we don’t really learn anything new in this documentary, despite the promise of the producers “unprecedented and exclusive access to [an] astonishing 200 hours of never-before-heard interviews,” recorded by journalist Linda Lipnack Keuhl for her biography of Holiday.

The book was never written. In the early hours of February 6, 1978, Keuhl was found dead in the street outside her hotel in Washington DC. The police said she jumped. Her sister, who is interviewed in the film, thinks she was pushed—a writer who didn’t leave a suicide note, who had on a beauty mask (an act of self-care contraindicating a suicidal frame of mind)—murdered, she suspects, to stop publication of the book.

Forty-some years later, the producers have used these cassette recordings as the basis for a film as much about Keuhl’s failed quest to write the biography as it is about Holiday herself. It is an ambitious endeavor which the film doesn’t quite pull off as well as perhaps a six-part docuseries would have done, although the Super 8mm filming is a clever device, evoking the era of Kuehl’s prime years and blending in with the home movies of Kuehl and her family. “I want to write something that is real,” said Kuehl, about her planned biography. “That is, Lady Day really as she is.” But perhaps what this film proves, as much as anything, is the impossibility of that endeavor; that Billie Holiday was extremely complex and ultimately unknowable, which is part of what makes her so addictive.

There are some amazing interviewees – from cousins, pimps, FBA agents, correctional officers, and various lovers, to jazz greats Melba Liston, Charles Mingus, Jimmy Rowles, her accompanist Bobby Tucker, Harry “Sweets” Edison, Jo Jones, Count Basie, and Tony Bennett, among others. There are also some omissions—Carmen McRae (her one-time maid and mentee, who refused to be interviewed), Abbey Lincoln (who said Holiday was the only singer she could listen to besides herself!), Frank Sinatra (who dubbed her “unquestionably the most important influence on American popular singing of the past 20 years.”), and Helen Merrill (here is a YouTube link of them singing together at a party ).

But while it’s definitely interesting to hear these gossipy snippets (less than an hour’s worth in total), I wonder why they picked, for example, Jimmy Rowles saying she “sang from her crotch” and that he was sorry he never got to try it out himself, from all the other things he surely said about her musicianship. Melba Liston simply describes a couple of violent physical arguments she witnessed between Holiday and Louis McKay.

Billie Holiday recording Strange Fruit in 1939. Photo by Charles Peterson, courtesy of Don Peterson. Photo supplied

For those who only know the Diana Ross movie (on which McKay was a consultant), this is an important testament to the fact that, in reality, McKay was a mob enforcer and abusive husband, who Holiday was in the middle of divorcing when she died, intestate. But it would have been nice also to have heard Liston’s musical perspective. And Kuehl asks people one too many times, “Do you think she liked [being beaten up]?” It’s a little prurient. And there are so many contradictory assertions in the interviews, that by the end you are left with the feeling of not knowing what to believe, as well as a strong desire to get your hands on the other 199 hours.

Still, it’s a valid and valuable addition to the Billie Holiday canon, not least for the colorized and restored footage of her singing in glorious technicolor. It brings her to life almost shockingly effectively, and ‘Now Baby Or Never’ and ‘God Bless the Child’ with the Count Basie band, are absolute revelations in comparison to the over-exposed and blurry, black and white originals on YouTube. Ditto the colorized versions of her singing ‘Porgy’ and the controversial ‘Strange Fruit’ in London, and ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’ in Paris. Those clips alone are worth the price of admission.

“The things that I sing have to have something to do with me and my life,” said Holiday. And for what she wanted us to know about her, we need look no further than her music. Drinking in the footage of a young Holiday at the start of Billie, and finishing with one of her last performances in 1959, what really stands out is an artist, literally scarred, but whose artistry remains undiminished by the unimaginable trials and tribulations of her life. Not a victim, but a survivor.

Watching this movie put Ms. Holiday back in my CD player, where she used to live — and where she belongs.

Tessa Souter (WEBSITE )  is a London-born, New York-based jazz singer.

Billie is available digitally from today, 13 November 2020 on Barbican Cinema on Demand including a live Q&A with James Erskine on 15 November as part of EFG London Jazz festival. It will screen on Amazon and iTunes from 16 November.

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