(Documentary film, directed by James Erskine. New Black Films. 96 Minutes. Film review by Tessa Souter)
It is a testament to the depth and emotional intensity of billie holidayhis artistic talent which, more than 60 years after his death, still fascinates. She has been the subject of more than 25 biographies, including her memoirs lady sings the blues; a film starring Diana Ross; A musical, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill; at least ten documentaries (on YouTube only); and countless interviews and film clips. And now we have billya new film by James Erskine (This is soccer; Le Mans: racing is everything; Pantani: the accidental death of a cyclist).
So what the hell don’t we already know about Billie Holiday? Well, not much, it turns out. And we really don’t learn anything new in this documentary, despite the producers’ promise “of unprecedented and exclusive access to [an] 200 Amazing Hours of Never-Before-Seen Interviews,” recorded by journalist Linda Lipnack Keuhl for her biography of Holiday.
The book was never written. In the early hours of February 6, 1978, Keuhl was found dead on the street outside her hotel in Washington DC. The police said she jumped. Her sister, who is interviewed in the film, thinks she was pushed – a writer who didn’t leave a suicide note, who wore a beauty mask (an act of self-care contraindicating a state suicidal) – murdered, she suspects, to stop publication of the book.
Forty years later, the producers used these cassette recordings as the basis for a film as much about Keuhl’s failed quest to write the biography as about Holiday herself. It’s an ambitious undertaking that the film doesn’t achieve quite as well as a six-part docuseries would have, although shooting in Super 8mm is a clever device, evoking the days of Kuehl’s early years. and melting into the house. films of Kuehl and his family. “I want to write something real,” Kuehl said of her planned biography. “That is to say, Lady Day truly as she is.” But what this film perhaps proves, more than anything, is the impossibility of this undertaking; that Billie Holiday was hugely complex and ultimately unknowable, which is part of what makes her so addictive.
There are some incredible interviewees – from cousins, pimps, FBA agents, correctional officers and various lovers, to jazz greats Melba Liston, Charles Mingus, Jimmy Rowles, his accompanist Bobby Tucker, Harry “Sweets” Edison , Jo Jones, Count Basie, and Tony Bennett, among others. There are also a few omissions – Carmen McRae (her housekeeper and mentee, who declined to be interviewed), Abbey Lincoln (who said Holiday was the only singer she could listen to besides herself !), Frank Sinatra (who dubbed her “arguably the most important influence on American popular singing of the past 20 years. “). and Helen Merrill (here’s a YouTube link of them singing together at a party ).
But if it’s really interesting to hear those gossip snippets (less than an hour in total), I wonder why they singled out, say, Jimmy Rowles saying she “sang from her crotch” and that he was sorry he never got to try it. of himself, of all the other things he surely said about his musicality. Melba Liston is simply describing some violent physical arguments she witnessed between Holiday and Louis McKay.
For those only familiar with the Diana Ross film (on which McKay was a consultant) it’s an important testament to the fact that in reality McKay was a mob enforcer and abusive husband, whom Holiday was in the process of divorce when she deceased, intestate. But it would also have been nice to have heard Liston’s musical point of view. And Kuehl too often asks people, “Do you think she liked [being beaten up]?” It’s a little lustful. And there are so many contradictory statements in the interviews, that in the end you have the feeling of not knowing what to believe, as well as a strong desire to get your hands on the another 199 hours.
Still, it’s a valid and valuable addition to Billie Holiday’s canon, especially for the colorized and restored images of her singing in glorious technicolor. It almost shockingly brings it to life, and “Now Baby Or Never” and “God Bless the Child” with the band Count Basie, are absolute revelations compared to the overexposed and blurry, black-and-white originals on YouTube. Ditto the colorized versions of his song ‘Porgy’ and the controversial ‘Strange Fruit’ in London, and ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’ in Paris. These clips alone are worth the price of admission.
“The things I sing have to have something to do with me and my life,” Holiday said. And for what she wanted to for us to know her, we need look no further than her music. Drinking in the footage of a young Holiday at the start of billy, and ending with one of her last performances in 1959, what really stands out is an artist, literally scarred, but whose artistry remains untouched by the unimaginable trials and tribulations of her life. Not a victim, but a survivor.
Watching this movie put Mrs. Holiday back in my CD player, where she lived – and where she belongs.