Billie Holiday wasn’t just any singer. She was billed as a song stylist. She was one of the greatest jazz and blues vocalists and songwriters of all time and the highest-paid Black performer of her time. Yet, she died in 1959 at the age of 44 with only $750 to her name. What happened?
That is what a young journalist, Linda Lipnack Kuehl, wanted to know when, in 1971, she set out to write the definitive biography of Holiday. Over the next several years, she tracked down and tape-recorded interviews with the celebrated singer’s family, friends, colleagues, pimps, pushers, lawyers, lovers, and haters. “I’d like to write something that is real,” we hear Kuehl tell one of her interviewees on tape, “that is really Lady Day, and from people who don’t see her in any sentimental way.” It is an astonishing and noteworthy accomplishment, but the book was never written. That is because Kuehl died in 1978 under what some say are mysterious circumstances.
Kuehl’s story is a subplot to the main attraction, and it’s an interesting way to tell this already unique story that showcases the seamier side of Holiday’s life. Holiday was a good person at heart—she was talented, a fearless advocate for Black rights, she was a generous person, loved children and dogs—but she had powerful demons that held her back and ultimately killed her through drug addiction and a penchant for choosing abusive men (and in the case of her last husband, swindlers). These unvarnished tales are told through press interviews with Holiday herself and Kuehl’s talks with those who knew her best. The previously unheard testimonies come from musical greats like Charles Mingus, Tony Bennett, Sylvia Syms, and Count Basie.
Holiday hardly had a chance. She was a child prostitute before making it as a low-paid singer in the Harlem nightclubs as a teenager. She finally achieved world stardom, but she could not enjoy her status—she brought herself down, time and time again, with drugs, alcohol, and abuse. To say that Billie is a depressing movie is an understatement. But no surprise, not to me, at least—I used to listen to her music quite a lot, plus I read her autobiography and watched the biopic about her, Lady Sings the Blues (1972). Many young people go through a “Billie Holiday phase,” and this documentary will hopefully spark some renewed interest in what really matters most: her music.
Written and directed by James Erskine, Billie puts together a visual and auditory collage over about an hour and a half. This approach mostly works, though the pace is not fast, nor is the imagery especially dynamic. There are many stills, archival footage (some of which is colorized), and vintage stock video, all providing a backdrop for Kuehl’s cassette-recorded audio. Sometimes there are captions for the more garbled bits, but mostly not—I had to strain to understand a lot of what was being said on those scratchy old tapes.
Sensitive viewers may have issues with the photos of lynched and burned Blacks shown during the section about Holiday’s most groundbreaking and controversial single: Strange Fruit (1939). It is perhaps the first “popular” protest anthem, similar to folk songs known as murder ballads, but really something entirely novel and shocking for the “Jim Crow era.” Billie then cuts to a few scenes from Black Lives Matter protests and the modern-day KKK, showing that America hasn’t come as far as we’d like to think. Does this mean that Holiday’s courage was all for naught? The filmmakers don’t have an opinion on that—in fact, they pose no opinions on anything. This documentary merely lays out the facts and history without much guidance. It is definitely not the best entry-point for Holiday neophytes.
While the timing may not be the best for such a gloomy tale—after all, both of the women at its center come to tragic ends—Billie is still an interesting documentary and a notable curio for Lady Day fans eager to hear first-hand, newly-excavated anecdotes.