Without fully realising the story and background of jazz singer, Billie Holiday, it felt relevant to be going to explore her past with this James Erskine documentary of her life. This was prior to uncovering the facts, and those that journalist and Billie fan, Linda Lipnack Kuehl, had unearthed as she set out in 1971 to write a full biography on the artist. Over the course of eight years, Linda tracked down and recorded over 200 hours of interviews with the people that knew the jazz musician personally. The book was never finished nevermind published, and the tapes never before heard until now.
Screened on the last day of the Glasgow Film Festival, Billie featured interviews with the likes of Charles Mingus, Tony Bennett, Sylvia Syms and Count Basie and restored performances that have been seen in colour for the first time. Painting a picture of a singer clearly with breathtaking talent that I knew very little about, including her song Strange Fruit which exposed the harsh realities of black life in America and gained her enemies over her short, turbulent life. She died almost penniless in 1959 at age 44. A sad tale, with a further life at question, this time Kuehl, sits around the life of Billie which is an unexpected element of the film.
Incorporating her stunning repertoire of work, as well as this interesting yet heartbreaking tale about two women that were usurped by society, this documentary is more apt for International Women’s Day than you initially think, it’s a story of two voices unheard (to some degree). With Billie Holiday’s story being one of exploitation, violent drug abuse, vindictive love affairs, and politics, there was much that kept her from being vocal. And it was clear that even when she did with that stunning yet controversial track, there was a demand for her to halt singing it in the late 1950s. With many interviewees depicting Billie as a wild woman, we got a sense of her character. As for Linda Kuehl, we got a sense of her obssession with this story and her intent on discovering what happened to Holiday. There was a question over both how had passed, which was never resolved with Erskine’s fllm, and left most in the cinema feeling blue on that Sunday. A saddening tale, with abuse and exploitation at the heart of it, Billie is an interesting documentary for unearthing much of the live of a dearly admired jazz musician with global popularity.