There is an abiding paradox to the life of Billie Holiday, which is the core tenet of her art: In theory you should feel bad for her, and yet it borders upon the impossible to do so. She’s overleaping will packaged in a vessel of transcendence.
James Erskine’s film Billie also comes wrapped in layers. We have Holiday’s life, but the life as gleaned through the passion project of someone else. That would be Linda Lipnack Kuehl, a journalist who, in the early 1970s, began conducting interviews with Holiday associates to tell the story of a life enshrouded in the haze of apocrypha. In 1978 Kuehl, who clearly had an intense connection to Holiday’s survivor ethos, attended a Count Basie concert and, near as we can tell, took her life that same night (though some continue to doubt it was suicide). The tapes from her interviews were orphaned, and have finally found their home of peace.
The format of the film is like a cross between Citizen Kane—a locked-room mystery enacted, ironically, in urban plein air—and a celluloid riff on Gauguin’s Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? One thinks of those newsreel scraps at the start of Welles’ film, invitations to disambiguate the backstory of a mythic, but human, figure.
Early childhood friends speak to Holiday’s brazen pluck, the salty language that would make an old-school football coach go, “Damn, girl.” It’s a tapestry of woven found sound, with the flair of a Teo Macero edit. Footage of Holiday accentuates the oral histories, and it’s to Erskine’s credit that we’re able to maintain focus on what’s being said, given that Holiday is undiminishable as a magnet for our attention. Archival Holiday interviews are always congruous; she tells you exactly what she intended to do, using direct terms to convey expansive ideas.
“I always wanted to sing like an instrument,” she says. Nails it. John Hammond terms her an “improvising horn player” in a matter-of-fact manner, as if Holiday’s pipes couldn’t conceivably be slotted within a single category. She digs into us with maximum efficiency, which I think is the defining concept of Holiday’s art, the sensation that we are being acted upon, with our own part to play in that action. She “tandemizes” us, which is what the film does too, albeit to a necessarily lesser degree.
There’s a noir vibe here, but unlike a noir, we’re cognizant that Holiday is the shot-caller of her own life, even if life is the dispenser of blows. We see the peerless decider, which is to say, we come that much closer to seeing the life behind the singer. The art itself is life unto itself.
Learn more about the film here.