(2019) Music Documentary (Greenwich) Billie Holiday, Linda Lipnack Kuehl, Count Basie, Tony Bennett, Sylvia Syms, Billy Eckstein, Bobby Tucker, Jo Jones, Charles Mingus, Sarah Vaughan, Skinny Davenport, John Fagan, John Hammond, Myra Luftman, John Simmons, Artie Shaw, Al Avola, Les Robinson, Luis McKay, Irene Kitchings, Mae Weiss. Directed by James Erskine
That she was a jazz legend there is no doubt, but much of the life of Billie Holiday remains an enigma to modern listeners. When she died in 1959 at age 44, she was nearly penniless, victimized by abusive husbands and managers who stole nearly every penny she earned, and did nothing as she sank into alcohol and hard drug abuse. Given a childhood in which she was raped as a pre-teen and began work as a prostitute at age 13, perhaps that descent was inevitable.
The movie had its genesis in a book that was never written. In 1971, journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl, a big fan of the singer, decided to write her definitive biography (there was an autobiography in 1956 that was later criticized for being factually inaccurate, and was apparently threatened with legal action if certain aspects, such as her relationships with Charles Laughton, Tallulah Bankhead and Orson Welles were not removed) and spent the next eight years amassing interviews with those who knew her best, including jazz luminaries like Count Basie and Tony Bennett. However, before she could write the book, she passed away in 1979 in what was deemed by the Washington DC police as a suicide, although she left no note. Her family to this day contests the finding; Erskine attempted to look into the matter but all of the evidence collected by the DC police had been destroyed.
Erskine peppers the audio interviews with archival footage of Holiday performing some of her most memorable songs, as well as contemporaneous interviews with Lady Day herself (a nickname granted her by the musicians in the Count Basie orchestra with whom she sang early on in her career). Holiday once told her friend Sylvia Syms that the trick to performing was this: “If you almost laugh, the audience will laugh. If you almost cry, the audience will cry.” We see the evidence of that in her performance in which all the pain of her life – and all the joy – was very much in evidence in her face and in her body language.
Notably, we see a television performance of “Strange Fruit,” the at-the-time controversial song about lynching, late in her life. Her eyes are nearly deadened, numb with the horror of that which so many African-Americans of her generation had to grow up with and are now facing again, albeit in a much different way. The interviews are also fascinating, including one with the man who was her pimp during her prostitute days, who chuckles at the memory of beating her up when she got out of line; “the girls liked it,” he chortles. It’s enough to turn your stomach.
The film spends a little too much time on the journalist’s story, which although fascinating tends to detract from the story of the singer that she was trying to tell, something I imagine that the writer would find ironic if not disturbing. I think that she might have been gratified, however, if she knew that if you do an image search on her name, pictures of Holiday turn up (and a few of Linda Ronstadt, whose musical biography was also released by Greenwich last year).
It’s the music that Holiday will be remembered for, however, and there’s plenty of it here and you will be taken by the sheer force of her vocals. She was the greatest singer of her age bar none, and if you aren’t familiar with her work this is a dandy place to start. If you are familiar with her work, then the interviews about her will be a treasure trove.
Although iMDB gives a June release date for the film, that was a pre-Coronavirus entry and the movie remains on the festival circuit for the time being. For those looking to see it on the Florida Film Festival virtual festival, it is unfortunately sold out. Keep an eye out for it though – it is one of the best documentaries you’ll see this year.
REASONS TO SEE: Holliday’s story is tragic and compelling. Some wonderful performance footage. Judging from the interviews, this would have been an amazing book. Gives due to one of the most important figures in American music of the 20th century.
REASONS TO AVOID: Spends a little too much time on Kuehl’s story.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of profanity (Holliday swore like a sailor), plus plenty of drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the performance footage was originally filmed in black and white, but was restored to full color for use in the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/12/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Miles Davis: The Birth of Cool
FINAL RATING: 9/10
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