There are two potentially fascinating documentary portraits in director James Erskine’s Billie. There is of course the tragic tale of legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday, who died in 1959 of cirrhosis of the liver at 44 years, with the weary voice of a woman decades older. Then there’s the story of journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl, who had been working on a biography of Holiday for nearly a decade before she met her own untimely death in 1978. Using the countless hours of recorded interviews Kuehl left behind, Erskine has crafted a film around the jazz singer’s life and the journalist’s attempt to capture it. But the end result doesn’t quite do justice to either of its subjects.

Part of the problem is the parallel structure. Kuehl’s interviews with musicians who knew Holiday and surviving friends and family make up the bulk of the film, and a combination of stock footage, vintage performances and shots of Kuehl’s tools—tape recorder, cassettes, etc.—keep things moving visually, an achievement considering how much of the documentary depends on disembodied voices. This method is used to chart Holiday’s life, and also Kuehl’s. Erskine suggests that the two women’s lives are mirrored in tragedy, but anyone coming to the film as a Holiday fan may be less interested in Kuehl’s story, which however tragic isn’t nearly as profound.

Related to the issue of twinned storylines is the problem of framing a Black musician’s life with that of a white figure. The execrable Green Book wasn’t the first to do this; while most critics admire Bertrand Tavernier’s 1988 film Round Midnight, loosely based on the lives of Lester Young and Bud Powell, Dexter Gordon’s sensitive performance is overshadowed by the buddy figure played by François Cluzet. But, now as then, one may wonder, why do we have to view this story through somebody else’s eyes, especially when the primary figure lived such a rich life?

Erskine naturally addresses the racism Holiday faced, which led to her heartbreaking performances of “Strange Fruit,” yet the very structure of the film establishes the Black subject, if not exactly as a supporting character, as a figure whose story needs to be told alongside somebody else’s tragedy.

Still, when Erskine does tell Holiday’s story, it’s impossible to look away. With a series of abusive relationships as well as the drug use and love affairs and run-ins with the law, Holiday’s life is the definition of the sordid jazz arc. But her voice rises above it all; it wasn’t a pretty instrument, but her lived-in phrasing made magic, even when the voice was nearly gone. In footage of her very last performance, filmed just months before she died, she looks frail but ever regal, and if she doesn’t hit every note the way she would have even ten years before, she still feels every word, especially in a late-career rendition of “Strange Fruit.”

One does wonder how Kuehl’s Holiday biography would have turned out, but the journalist’s life also ended too soon, and under mysterious circumstances: the official report was that Kuehl jumped out of a hotel window, but the professional writer left no note, and her family disputes the claim. The biographer’s fate doesn’t exactly overwhelm Billie, but it throws a cog into a story more than eventful enough to warrant a more focused document.

Director James Erskine doesn’t quite do justice to either of his fascinating subjects.
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Split Personality
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