Part of Glasgow Film Festival, screened at Cineworld, March 7th and 8th.
American journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl worked over eight years and collected over two hundred hours of interviews in order to try to create the ultimate biography of jazz legend Billie Holiday, but died prematurely and in mysterious circumstances. The intention of director James Erskine is to provide a two-pronged portrait of the life of ‘Miss Lady Day’, while mirroring Kuehl’s own tragic life, and tendency (as with Holiday) to choose unsuitable men.
There are some wonderful clips of course, when Holiday’s long- lost interviews are played, (her voice isn’t aired enough though) along with spellbinding footage of civil rights howl Strange Fruit, but in the main it covers old ground: most admirers of Holiday already know the harrowing details of her tragic, too short life- the rape; child prostitution, racism she encountered as a fledgling artist, her attraction to unscrupulous lovers and descent into heroin addiction.
Erskine simply rubs the viewer’s face in it, with few new insights from her friends. She liked drink, drugs, and had a voracious sexual appetite, say the talking heads, from Tony Bennett to John Hammond, to Sylvia Syms . No shit, Sherlock.
So, too, with Kuehl’s life- it is sadly hard to invest in her narrative, as she’s a mere bookend in the film. Her own ambiguous relationship with Count Basie would have been worth exploring, but it’s all too briefly alluded to.
All round, Billie is a maddeningly prurient, and rather queasy documentary. Perhaps an overview of Holiday’s influence on other singers, wry sense of humour and pioneering approach to music would have provided more balance. She deserves much better.