This documentary about Billie Holiday is transfixing. Not just because it’s about Billie Holiday — I am not into jazz yet her version of ‘Strange Fruit’ is obviously incredible — but for the previously unheard audio tapes recorded by Linda Lipnack Kuehl in the 1970s with the people who knew her. This includes, for instance, Billie’s cousin, John Fagan, who chucklingly says he pimped her out as a child — ‘girls started young’ — and that women who ‘step out of line’ like to be knocked about and are proud of having a black eye as it shows ‘someone loves them’. Or it’s a band member recalling how Billie had to enter through the kitchens at venues and had to ‘black up’ when playing with Count Basie’s band because she was fair and a white woman couldn’t be seen singing with non-whites. You do have to wonder if Billie, who died ravaged by drink and drugs at just 44, were to magically come back today, then she would complain that the world was now too ‘woke’. I’m thinking not, but other views are very available in this magazine.
Written and directed by James Erskine, the film is not only about Billie but Linda too. She was a high school teacher and fan who, her sister tells us, ‘wanted Billie to have the voice Billie never had’. She intended to write a book but ‘couldn’t get that voice down on paper’. Linda died in peculiar circumstances (more later), but lives on wonderfully here as a funny, smart, empathetic interviewer. As archive footage plays, and we hit the Doomed Singer milestones that we know, alas, we’ll have to hit — the early success, the heroin, the exploitation, the fall from grace, the tragic death; see also: Judy, Whitney, Amy — we hear Linda throughout, along with all her interviewees.
In addition to Fagan there’s Charles Mingus and Tony Bennett and Count Basie and piano players and FBI agents and friends and Billie’s fellow singer, Marie Bryant, who was not taken with John Levy, who became Billie’s boyfriend-manager. ‘The dirty rotten stinking bastard. You can’t say anything good about him. If she wanted for $50 he’d knock her down with his fists.’ And there’s her earlier manager, John Hammond, who introduced Billie to Benny Goodman ‘who wouldn’t normally record with a black person because he was afraid he’d lose all his jobs’. So why did he?, Linda wants to know. ‘He slept with her, you see.’ Hammond then adds: ‘I was one of the people who didn’t.’ He says that as if it makes him especially gallant. Which it probably does.
Linda, her sister tells us, didn’t wish to portray Billie as a victim. But even though Billie fought back — she broke a Coca-Cola bottle over the head of one husband — it is hard to see her as anything but, and this is often a hard watch as well as a hard (cackling) listen. This lady sang the blues for a reason. The brazen, unrepentant racism. The brazen, unrepentant chauvinism. It’s all there in the songs. Erskine leaves enough room for her genius to shine through, even if some of the performance footage has been colourised, perhaps unnecessarily.
More problematic is Linda, who died in 1979 from what was said to be suicide after returning from a Count Basie concert. Her family insists she didn’t take her own life and we do hear conversations between Linda and Basie that start as flirtatious, then take a sinister turn. The film doesn’t much investigate this, which, given that Linda’s done most of the heavy lifting here, seems disappointingly inadequate. Still, it does succeed in building a gripping portrait of Billie who, if she were around today, would hopefully not marry a man who so controlled and fleeced her that she died with just $750 to her name.
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