- Emma Simmonds
- 9 November 2020
James Erskine's insightful but structurally frustrating documentary illuminates a troubled soul
'Billie Holiday sang only truth, she knew nothing else,' recalls friend and fellow jazz singer Sylvia Syms in an interview recorded several decades ago. The unmistakable, spine-tingling anguish that suffused Holiday's vocals is in plentiful supply here, as are anecdotes detailing the relentless blows of her hard-knock life. It's more than enough meat to chew on, yet this unusually framed documentary, from director James Erskine, adds an additional layer of intrigue to proceedings.
The film is assembled from audio interviews with some of the key players in Holiday's story: friends, family, musical collaborators, law enforcement officials. These interviews were conducted in the 70s by high school teacher and part-time journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl, who was pulling together a biography of the singer when she was found dead in February 1978, the first piece of information we are given. With what may be a true crime hanging over events, it then reverts to a fairly straight, albeit frank and well-informed look at an extraordinary and extraordinarily difficult journey, with reminders of Kuehl peppered throughout.
We're taken from Billie's abusive childhood in Baltimore and later Harlem, which saw her sexually exploited, to a period where her incredible talent was recognised but she was often treated as a second-class citizen – forced to sleep on the bus while white bandmates stayed in hotels, or denied access to venues entirely. Promiscuity and drug use marked much of her short life, the men she hooked up with sometimes recalling the pimps of her past, and she was ruthlessly targeted by law enforcement. Many remember her fondly; rather sadly her time in prison seemed to be handled with good grace and a lack of song, and it seems she never did realise what a legend she was.
Although Kuehl's own story doesn't intrude a great deal on what is after all sold as a documentary on Holiday, its very inclusion does complicate matters, and the lack of answers there may leave you frustrated. This also creates confusion as to where and how to wrap things up – on Kuehl herself, who died two decades after 'Lady Day', as Holiday was known, or on the film's iconic, inevitably more fascinating subject. It may end on a bit of an uncertain note, but there's plenty of soul-stirring along the way.
Available to watch in selected Welsh and Scottish cinemas and virtual cinemas in England from Fri 13 Nov, and on digital from Mon 16 Nov.