Billie (2019) – On demand

Billie is no bio-pic in the conventional sense. James Erskine’s documentary transcends the clichés and presents a new angle on the Billie Holiday legend.

Fresh Light on Lady Day

by Phil Wilson


CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Any new film about the legend that is Billie Holiday is always welcome. Particularly one that tries to transcend the timeworn clichés and present a new angle. Billie sets out to do just that. To show the singer, not so much in the familiar role as victim, but as a strong-willed, impulsive, driven person.

To this end the film takes its focus from the large volume of interview tapes about Billie left by the 1970s American journalist Linda Kuehl. Kuehl was researching Billie’s life for a book but died herself in inconclusive circumstances in 1978. Her research seems to have been thorough and she left a legacy of 125 tapes. Many were interviews with musicians, some with Billie’s early friends, her cousin and with various people who’d known her in Harlem and around the jazz scene. These tapes had rarely been accessed before, although Julia Blackburn did use some to set the scene in her book With Billie.

The film’s production company arranged for some 80 of these deteriorating tapes to be transcribed and they’ve based the film around those voices, with an intelligent use of background footage and some well-chosen TV performance clips.

A subsequent interview with the director, James Erskine, suggested the film be seen as ‘film noir’. And while the film does make a largely unsuccessful attempt to bring a narrative of Linda Kuehl into the story, that story might well have been better served as a separate film more deserving of that tag.

Billie Holiday was born in Baltimore in 1915. Often abandoned by her working mother with family members, she was in reform school at nine and arrived in Harlem at 14. Here she joined her mother, who had clearly sent for her, although this wasn’t made clear in the film. Her arrival in Harlem is referred to several times, almost as a mystery, intended perhaps to show her resourcefulness and determination? One of several small glitches that occur in the film’s occasionally-confused chronology.

Billie began appearing in nightclubs where she was spotted by John Hammond. She made her first recordings in 1933 before moving on to appear regularly with Teddy Wilson (who isn’t mentioned), Count Basie and Artie Shaw.

Certainly, Billie is no bio-pic in the conventional sense. It asks questions; but faces and quotes flicker by too quickly to often appreciate the answers. More time might have been spent fleshing out the contents of some tapes rather than taking too many snatches of others.

Ella Fitzgerald was an early competitor to Billie. When Billie sang with Basie, Ella sang with Chick Webb, but they became friends and Ella had a similarly problematic upbringing. She appears briefly, but might she not have had more insights to the story than those shown?

So does the film work? Does it overturn the cliche that Billie Holiday was a “victim”? The evidence given here can be conflicting and confusing. She was certainly oppressed by the inherent racism, prevailing sexual mores and the often-rackety entertainment business. She was also frequently betrayed when it came to the drug busts.

However, there is no escaping the probability that Billie had an element of self-harming, in both her drug use and her choice of male partners. This is referred to but not given modern analysis. And she could certainly be an in-your-face performer. The autobiographical My Man makes uncomfortable listening with our awareness of domestic violence and the protest song Strange Fruit (which she continued to perform for much of her career) caused some white customers to walk out in New York nightclubs.

The time spent with Artie Shaw – as the first black singer with a white band – is used very well to illustrate the oppressive realities of the Jim Crow era. Billie often had to sleep on the bus and when she ate, often got an extra takeaway, not knowing when she might be served again.

The time given to the anecdotes of the musicians is inconsistent. Count Basie is prominent in the footage, perhaps because he appears to have had a close relationship with Linda. Like Ella, others may well have had more illuminating comments to draw on than were shown. One feels there may also have been a deference to the legend of Billie in the replies as a mark of respect. Until everything is on the table, we’ll never know.

More importantly the film brings those tapes into common knowledge and may open the way to a better exposure of their contents. As a film Billie is but a fascinating glimpse and for all its good points, it may feel just as enigmatic as the legend.

Billie premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in September 2019, was in select cinemas from 13 November 2020 in the UK and is now available to watch on demand via BFI Player, Curzon Home Cinema and Barbican Cinema On Demand, as well as to purchase from Amazon and iTunes from 16 November 2020.

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