Billie


The legendary Billie Holiday.

(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
NEXT:
The Outside Story

Gabriel (2014)


Are you looking at me?

Are you looking at me?

(2014) Drama (Oscilloscope Laboratories) Rory Culkin, Emily Meade, Lynn Cohen, David Call, Alexia Rasmussen, Louisa Krause, Deirdre O’Connell, Frank De Julio, Julia K. Murney, Desmin Borges, Biago Simon, Sean Cullen, Jee Young Han, Chase Anderson, Samantha Sherman, And Palladino, Shana Kaplan, Chelsea Linder, Adriana Barnett. Directed by Lou Howe

Florida Film Festival 2015

We know so little about the human mind. What makes it tick, how it processes information, what causes it to malfunction, we really only have an inkling of the mysteries of the brain. We try to help those who have issues with their mental faculties, but really it’s all just stabs in the dark.

Gabriel (Culkin) is taking a bus. He seems friendly enough, although there’s something a little off about him; a little jittery perhaps, or a sense that he’s trying too hard to fit in. In any case, when he arrives at a small college in Connecticut looking for his girlfriend, we think that he’s just trying to visit his girl until we realize that the address he has for her is years out of date. When he finally finds her home address, his frustration that she doesn’t answer the door leads to a brief outbreak of violent behavior leads to our sense of unease about the kid.

Then we find that he wasn’t supposed to be there; he was supposed to be heading home to his family – brother Matthew (Call), a straight-arrow sort who is doing his best for his baby brother and is ready to introduce his fiance Kelly (Rasmussen) to him, and his mother Meredith (O’Connell) who is frenetically protective of her son, checking up on whether he has taken his medication as if he were a seven-year-old.

It is no wonder that Gabriel chafes in this environment, so at his first opportunity he runs off, still in search of his girlfriend Alice (Meade) whom he think will solve all his problems and make his life the perfect thing he always imagined it would be. There are obstacles in his way however, most of them of his own making. For one thing, the only one in his family he trusts as all is Nonny (Cohen), his grandmother and she is in the City (New York, for those wondering). For another, he’s not exactly sure where Alice is spending the winter break. One thing is certain; he doesn’t want to go back to the institution where he had just been released from. He very much wants his freedom.

There is a small coterie in Orlando who are in the know about something called the Uncomfortable Brunch. It takes place at a bar called Will’s Pub on a Sunday morning once a month and during the brunch they show a movie, generally one that is difficult to watch or raises feelings of unease. Those familiar with that event will understand when I say that this is the perfect movie for it.

First-time director Howe pulls no punches, basing the movie on his own experiences with a college roommate who was a diagnosed schizophrenic. This isn’t a movie that is so much a journey as it is a descent, for as Gabriel refuses to take his meds and becomes more and more in the grip of his own obsession, we see him become less and less likable and more and more dangerous to himself and others.

Culkin delivers the performance of his career to date and marks himself as a serious actor to be reckoned with. The intensity of his gaze from under the wool cap that his character wears constantly (an inkling of which you get from the photo above) grows more and more focused even as he himself does not. We get the sense that there’s something not quite right about Gabriel and it isn’t just the various tics and mannerisms. It’s the unpleasantness (I wrote in my notes as I watched this that there was nothing wrong with him a good punch in the face wouldn’t cure, although of course that’s far from true and not one of my shiniest moments) of the character, the sense that he is capable of anything and his overall unpredictability that make him feel like a ticking time bomb. One feels watching Gabriel that this movie isn’t going to end well for somebody, and it may be someone besides Gabriel who is the victim.

The movie is bleak looking as well; there aren’t a lot of warm colors in the cinematographer’s palate here; a lot of blues and grays and whites. That it is set during winter is not an accident; that contributes to the overall bleak feel of the movie. There are also a few nagging questions I had about just what was going on; where, for example, did Gabriel get the money for the bus tickets he buys?

This isn’t easy to watch in many ways but to its credit the movie will get a reaction from you, even if it is an unpleasant one. The world needs movies like this one, if only to remind us that the world isn’t the same for everybody and some folks who may not be the most pleasant to be around are grappling with demons that the rest of us can never understand or relate to. Only their families will have some sense of the hells they live through and sometimes, they’re so busy going through their own hells in dealing with theirs that they lose sight of that.

I can’t say that I’d recommend this movie for everyone – not everyone wants or needs a downer of a film when they’re looking for a movie to watch. However, despite my somewhat lukewarm review, this is a movie that has a lot going for it and for those looking for something a little different and a little more challenging, this is definitely one you should consider.

REASONS TO GO: Culkin is scintillating. No punches pulled view of mental illness.
REASONS TO STAY: An hour and a half spent with someone you’d probably rather not spend an hour and a half with. A bit too bleak for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Some violence and foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Much of the movie was filmed in the Hamptons.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/21/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spider (2002)
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out a Window and Disappeared