Billie, a compelling, beautifully crafted documentary about the life, loves and music of legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday, begins with a mystery and ends with two tragedies.
One tragedy, of course, is Holiday’s passing at the age of 44 — handcuffed and under arrest for drug charges as she lay dying in a hospital bed.
The other involves journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl, who spent decades compiling interviews and notes in a quest to write the definitive biography of her musical idol, but whose life was also cut short before she could finish it. Kuehl’s body was found on a Washington, D.C., sidewalk in 1978, and the manner of her death is still unresolved.
Written and directed by James Erskine (Sachin: A Billion Dreams), Billie uses Kuehl’s cassette-taped interviews with people who knew — or claimed to know — Holiday’s history, sexuality, psychology and motivations. These previously unreleased tapes are given texture by dozens of professional and candid photographs, radio interviews and newspaper clippings — and, most importantly, by Holiday’s voice: a pained, raspy angel, always seemingly on the verge of tears.
If you can listen to Holiday singing “God Bless the Child,” “Solitude” or “Strange Fruit” and feel nothing, this movie is not for you — nor, perhaps, is jazz.
Kuehl, however, was deeply moved. As a white, Jewish, New York teen, she became entranced by Holiday’s music. Kuehl’s story is compelling as well. Over a span of eight years, she doggedly tracked down sources and filled more than 120 tapes with comprehensive, often fraught interviews with Holiday’s childhood friends, abusers, bandmates, jail officials, FBI agents involved with her cases and legendary artists like Sarah Vaughn and Count Basie.
Yet Erskine wisely keeps the documentary centered on Holiday, an artistic genius who navigated racism, poverty, fame, addiction and misogynoir — a form of sexism targeted specifically at Black women.
Kuehl, according to her sister, who’s featured in the film, was very conscious of being white and trying to tell Holiday’s story. Kuehl’s interviewees make it clear that, even as a “free” Black American, Holiday wasn’t allowed in certain hotels or restaurants, or to freely use toilets on the road. She was humiliated by being forced to darken her light skin in some clubs so that it was clear to white audiences that she was Black.
Holiday, an only child, was born Eleanora Fagan in Philadelphia in 1915. She grew up in Baltimore and then Harlem, N.Y., where she started singing in clubs at just 14. By that age, she had already suffered rape and physical beatings, but she also knew she could sing and that it might be a way out. Her “strange voice” was, as Kuehl notes, “more real and true than anything I’d ever heard before … [and] wailed huskily from some netherworld.”
For stalwart jazz fans, Billie doesn’t offer much breaking news about the singer’s life, but it does offer a new intimacy. Kuehl interviews people who are enamored with and bedeviled by Holiday. Some of their stories and language — particularly about her sexuality, drug dependence and physical abuse — are often cringeworthy. Kuehl repeatedly asks, “Why?” and is insistent on going deeper than anecdotes. You hear a gifted journalist at work, pushing, pushing, pushing.
And in Billie Holiday’s story, we hear a woman whose art and life were cruelly limited by a narrow-minded, racist world that would let a Black woman like her rise only so far before tearing her back down, literally to death. As she plaintively sings in “God Bless the Child,” “You can help yourself, but don’t take too much.”
Available to rent via Amazon Video, iTunes and other streaming services