Great documentaries are often founded on great discoveries. In the case of James Erskine’s Billie, that discovery is a treasure trove of interviews by the late Linda Lipnack Kuehl. A writer based in Washington, she spent a decade between the 60s and 70s researching a book about Billie Holiday, interviewing friends, fellow performers, and key figures in her life.
These never-before-heard interviews provide the narration for the story of Holiday’s success, with the singer achieving fame in the 30s and 40s before years of personal struggles took their toll, leading to her untimely death in 1959 aged just 44. These interviews give an insight into the woman behind the persona of Lady Day, and the brutal cost of her success.
The facts of her life are nothing new to those familiar with her story. What this film does is bring those facts to life through the words of people who were there. The Harlem of the 1930s comes to life, a vibrant place of wealth, music and vice. We hear the voice of a pimp, cackling remorselessly as he recalls hitting the girls who worked for him. It’s uncomfortable stuff, with much of the language reflecting the era in which the interviews were recorded.
It does, however, give a clear vision of the troubled life Holiday endured. Of course, there’s the fast living, with interviewees openly discussing a voracious appetite for sex with men and women, as well as battling drug addiction. “We try to live one hundred days in one day”, she says at one point when asked why jazz singers seem to die so young.
Lipnack Kuehl’s work reveals that isn’t the whole picture, however, with Holiday’s addictions becoming a crutch for a life beset with violence, misogyny and racism. We see the relationships with abusive men, and the institutionalised racism that made her a high-profile target for narcotics police right up to the end of her life. You can hear the loaded tone when one officer describes how she ‘flaunts’ her wealth. “Wasn’t she entitled to have a Cadillac, wasn’t she entitled to have a mink?” says drummer Jo Jones.
While this format serves to set the tone, it also reveals the unreliable nature of the eye witness. Memory and perspectives can be skewed, as accusations are thrown while Lipnack Kuehl pleads with her interviewees for some evidence, pointing out that she cannot legally print what is being said. One such dispute arises over the reason for Holiday’s sacking from Count Basie’s band, with Jones adamant that producer John Hammond fired her for refusing to solely sing the blues. Hammond, whose reputation was built on ‘discovering’ talents such as Holiday, vehemently denies it, arguing that it was over money.
It’s a strength of the format, the choice to hear many sides and draw conclusions of your own. It’s reminiscent of Asif Kapadia’s Amy, a similarly pitched documentary that asked equally uncomfortable questions. One performer who appeared in that film, Tony Bennett, is heard here down a crackling phone line, agonising that “the girl singers all crack up once they hit the top. I want to know why that is?” One senses that viewing both films may give him some answers.
One thing that is never in doubt is the talent that made her a star. Wonderful performance footage and recordings provide a constant reminder of why this life was worth examining, and add to the tragedy that such a talent would suffer so much for her art.
The recording and performance of Strange Fruit, a song about lynching in the Southern States, illustrates how she risked further oppression in her pursuit of truth in her art. One final, haunting picture, dubbed ‘The Shadow of Death’ by the photographer, shows her hunched in a seat clutching a glass of vodka. Yet, when we see her final filmed performance before her death, the talent remains undiminished.
The architect of Billie is rarely featured in the film, beyond occasional intervierws with family members about her passion for the book and the events of her death. Once we get to the end, however, it’s clear that Lipnack Keuhl had been present all along through her recordings. As much as the film is a testament to Holiday’s life, it is also a tribute to the passion one writer had in getting to know the real Lady.
• BILLIE is available, on demand, from 13th November on BFI, IFI, Curzon Home Cinema, Barbican. There is a live Q&A with James Erskine on 15 November as part of EFG London Jazz festival and it will be available to buy on Amazon and iTunes on 16 November.