Monday 16 November 2020

The days of Lady Day: "Billie"

The first surprise Billie confronts us with is that there hasn't yet been a feature-length documentary on the life and death of Billie Holiday - a gap in the market that seems doubly curious given that 1972's feature-length dramatisation Lady Sings the Blues, starring Diana Ross as Holiday, has all but dropped out of circulation. James Erskine's new doc, which does a respectable job of plugging that gap, follows a template set down by Asif Kapadia in 2015's Amy. The key material here is a previously unheard cache of interviews journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl taped in the 1970s with an eye to writing a biography that never materialised. As the film flags from the off, Lipnack Kuehl was found dead on a Washington sidestreet in 1978, apparently after jumping from a window in a suicide her sister questions to this day. The tapes are thereby granted the significance of a hot potato, or a smoking gun: what did Lipnack Kuehl hear that others might have wanted erased from any official record? We'll never know, but already you have some sense of how Erskine prioritises the voice - and, in his subject's case, That Voice. In her unfinished manuscript, Lipnack Kuehl wrote "My first encounter with Billie Holiday was as a listener"; picking up this thread in post-production, Erskine typically runs titbits from a Holiday interview or the words of an admirer singing her praises over a choice Billie cut. This is a film to keep your ears busy, and happy. Yet Billie also means to address the issue of whose stories are told and which voices get heard. Born into poverty in Baltimore in 1915, and coming to prominence in a still-segregated Land of the Free, the Billie Holiday story presents as a test case for a century in which Black lives were elevated above the status of slaves, but not so much as to make a vast difference. You find yourself sucking in air faced with one damning fact in the closing credits: that Holiday, one of the highest paid entertainers in mid-20th century America, passed on with a mere $750 to her name.

The advantage of having the journo's tapes as a resource is that Lipnack Kuehl was asking smart questions of remarkably unguarded interviewees. She got to them long enough after the events under discussion for conversations to flow freely and frankly, and so Billie drips with candour from the get-go: its subject enlightening us as to her momma's favourite cursewords. Pianist Jimmy Rowles notes that Holiday "sang from the crotch" before expressing regret that he never got there; her actual lovers describe her as a sex machine. Erskine capably evokes the seamy Harlem nightclub scene into which the teenage Holiday emerged in the Thirties, with its rooms full of reefer smoke and temptations besides. Yet the thrust of Lipnack Kuehl's manuscript was that whatever Holiday grabbed at and gobbled up (weed, opium, booze, men, women; her appetite was boundless), it was finally her choice; that, far from popular perception, she wasn't exactly a victim. As the writer put it, in what would have provided a fine pullquote for the sleeve of either her published book or a dimestore novel, "She did what she wanted to do... with a vengeance." Central to that was a recognition on the singer's part of the relative privilege she'd been extended upon moving away from Baltimore and into the limelight - a privilege that certainly wasn't available to her smalltown contemporaries. (It was that knowledge, surely, that yielded "Strange Fruit".) Still, Erskine also shows us how, even while she was running rampant, Holiday kept running up against what those (white) folks who ran the music business expected from Black performers. The accusations fly when it comes to addressing Holiday's departure from the Count Basie Orchestra. And if the bookers and label bosses didn't want this unavoidable talent to sing jazz, they really didn't want her singing protest songs about lynching. Charles Mingus, one of Lipnack Kuehl's higher profile interviewees, notes Billie "was exposing discrimination before Martin Luther King".

Erskine enters this arena after a run of eminently watchable sports documentaries (One Night in Turin, From the Ashes, The Battle of the Sexes) in which he honed a knack for assembling pacy, atmospheric, ninety-minute primers. Like most of the films on this CV, Billie flows and catches us up in the story being told. Early on, I feared it might be a little too audio-heavy, if anything, but the director has had a useful rummage in the archives, and together with editor Avdhesh Mohla, he's generally selected the right images to crystallise key moments in the Billie legend, be those happy (the arresting glamour of Thirties promotional stills, shots only a flashbulb camera could generate) or troubled (contrast: the late shot of Holiday in a recording studio, glass of vodka in hand, looking a shadow of her robust former self). The other debatable issue is the Lipnack Kuehl story, a loose end threaded in with the narrative proper. I think Erskine sees two things in this counterpoint, primarily the very great responsibility this white devotee of Holiday's felt in setting out to tell her idol's story. (Erskine doubtless feels that pressure, too.) Secondly, the journalist's narrative goes towards what people have subsequently seen in Billie, and how deleterious it might be to romanticise the singer's masochism, or to try and make a feminist figurehead out of a badly beaten woman. As the recent trajectories of Amy Winehouse and Whitney Houston illustrated, you really want to follow in Holiday's footsteps only up to a point. In deviating from his source, then, Erskine succeeds in rounding out Lipnack Kuehl's manuscript with life-wisdom, similarly hymning Holiday's achievements while also being careful to flag the quiet, almost unnoticed everyday tragedies this life entailed. At one point, Holiday's friend Sylvia Syms can be heard telling Lipnack Kuehl that the singer cried, "but only when she was certain nobody else was around". Singular as Billie Holiday was in several respects, I don't think she was alone in that.

Billie is now showing at the Showcase Cardiff and the Everyman Cardiff, and available to rent via Amazon Prime, Curzon Home Cinema and the BFI Player; the DVD will be available through Spirit Entertainment on November 30. 

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