Dir: James Erskine. 15 cert, 96 mins
On 6 February 1978, journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl fell from the balcony of a Washington DC hotel. Her death was ruled as a suicide. Her family, however, believed otherwise. Kuehl had dedicated the last eight years of her life to a biography of jazz singer Billie Holiday, whose rich, sensuous voice had been steeped in a lifetime of pain. She spoke to Holiday’s friends, and to those who had been there for the most transformative chapters of her life. Kuehl had even grown close to some of her interview subjects, including Holiday’s former bandleader Count Basie. At one point, she began to receive strange, threatening calls. Did someone consider the pair’s intimacy a threat? Did Kuehl jump, or was she pushed?
The book was left unfinished, Kuehl’s tapes buried away – until now. It’s an incendiary piece of prologue for James Erskine’s thorough, informative documentary, simply titled Billie. It also brings up a few necessary, if rarely confronted questions. Is it possible to tell someone else’s story without, invariably, telling our own? Can an author ever truly separate themselves from their subject? Kuehl was white, born in the Bronx and relatively prosperous.
Holiday grew up in Baltimore, poor and lonely – her father had abandoned her and her mother was often absent due to work. She was the victim of repeated sexual abuse. After moving to Harlem, she started singing in the local nightclubs, where she was eventually discovered by producer John Hammond. By the early Forties, she had worked with Basie and Artie Shaw. She had also recorded her most important song, “Strange Fruit” – a battle cry against America’s vicious history of lynching, sat right at the dawn of the civil rights movement. That made her a target of the FBI. Her predilection for weed, opium and coke gave them the excuse to hound her relentlessly.
Kuehl, in that period of eight years, began to see parts of herself in Holiday. There was a rebellious engine inside both of them. Both died young – Holiday at age 44, of liver cirrhosis. Here, Erskine has been given the opportunity to illuminate the lives of two women by seeing where they intertwine. But, for the most part, he’s squandered it. Billie feels typical, even if its attention to detail gives it an obvious appeal. The film consists almost entirely of Kuehl’s recordings – she had 125 cassettes worth of interviews – and snippets of her writing, the latter played out over dramatic reconstructions of hands hovering above a typewriter. There’s plenty of performance footage, too, some of it needlessly colourised. Occasionally, pieces of Kuehl’s own life enter into the picture, but never with much attempt to build a connection.
Erskine at least benefits from the basic volume of his source material. Kuehl spoke to musicians, obviously, like Shaw and Tony Bennett, but also to more obscure figures – those involved in her drug busts and the man who acted as her pimp when she was a teen. A psychiatrist, at one point, weighs in with a diagnosis. In his estimation, Holiday was a psychopath – strictly in the sense that she was ruled by impulse. It’s hard to know much trust to put in his words, though Erskine builds a picture of a life carved out by desires. She wanted to sing. She wanted to have sex, mostly with women. She wanted to retire and care for orphans. There’s a lingering sense that Kuehl understood something deeper, but Billie never seems all that curious to find out what that might be.
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