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Courtesy William P. Gottlieb Collection


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New Black Films
96 minutes

A victim of her own self-destructive excesses is a common trope when assessing Billie Holiday. Yet James Erskine's handsome documentary Billie makes a convincing case for Holiday—arguably the greatest of all jazz singers—as more a victim of poverty, racism, manipulation and brutal misogyny.

Holiday's story has been amply documented in the past and Erskine sketches the basic biographical details of her life with the aid of noirish period photos and grainy urban footage.

Born Elenora Fagan on April 7, 1915 in Philadelphia and raised in Baltimore, Holiday's mother worked long hours, often away from home, while her musician father was an absent figure.

Raised by relatives, Holiday suffered physical abuse and rape while still a child, and at thirteen she was working as a call girl. It was while running errands in a Baltimore brothel that she first heard the records of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong, music that ignited her passion for singing.

Holiday moved to New York in 1929 to join her mother and soon began singing in the clubs of Harlem. Producer John Hammond helped launch Holiday's recording career and the rest, as they say, is history.

Not so well known, however, is the story of Linda Lipnack Kuehl, whose research into Holiday in the 1970s not only paved the way for Erskine's film, but for previous biographies of jazz' most celebrated singer.

While Billie works convincingly as an historically accurate, humanizing portrait of Holiday, Erskine's attempt to simultaneously make this documentary about Kuehl is less successful.

A public high school teacher who had written on women in the arts for Paris Review and The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Kuehl fell under the spell of Holiday's singing as a teenager. In 1971 she set out to write the story of Holiday's life, without sentimental gloss.

For the next seven years Kuehl recorded interviews with around two hundred people connected to Holiday. Family, friends, lovers, musicians and figures from Holiday's childhood all gave Kuehl their testimony. So too, a narcotics agent, a psychiatrist and staff from Alderson Federal Prison Camp, where Holiday spent ten months on a drug charge in 1947-48.

Kuehl never got to complete her book. She died in unexplained circumstances in 1978. Police said her fall from a window was suicide. though why a person would put on beauty face-mask prior to jumping is bizarre, to say the least. Her family suspected foul play, though frustratingly, no plausible motive is forwarded, other than the possibility that her investigative-style research may have ruffled someone's feathers.

Kuehl's voice is heard throughout the film as she fires questions at her interviewees, while further narrative impetus comes from Kuehl's sister, combined with the thoughts of musicians such as Count Basie, Charles Mingus, Melba Liston, Artie Shaw and Billy Eckstine, amongst others.

Considering the hardships that Holiday endured it is easy to understand her addictions to alcohol, hard drugs and sex as escapism. And she endured a lot. A former pimp laughs as he talks about beating working girls like Holiday to keep them in line. John Fagan, a cousin of Holiday speaks of young Afro-American girls like Holiday working as prostitutes being a norm: "During them times you had to survive, and she had to survive."

Jo Jones, who worked with Holiday in Count Basie's band summarizes the Afro-American experience of the Jim Crow southern states, and Holiday's specifically, when he tells Kuehl: "You don't know what we was going through. We was going through hell. Miss Billie Holiday didn't have the privilege of using a toilet in a filling station. The boys at least could go out in the woods."

Segregation also made eating on the road problematic for Holiday, as Mae Weiss, a friend of the singer relates: "After we would eat, she always ordered an extra hamburger and she put that in her purse because she never knew when she would not be able to be served."

Holiday confronted the darkest side of racism with Abel Meeropol's "Strange Fruit," a chilling evocation of the lynching of blacks in the Southern states, which she first performed in Café Society in 1939. Club owner Barney Josephson recalls: "When she sang 'Strange Fruit' she never moved. Billie stood there. All service stopped at the bar everywhere... white people walked out, one party after another."

Kuehl makes the case for Holiday as a supreme lyric interpreter and a pioneering activist when she writes: "It was Billie's interpretation of 'Strange Fruit,' not the song itself, that changed the direction of American music."

Charles Mingus concurs: "'Strange Fruit.' What is that, man? She was fighting equality [sic] before Martin Luther King.... exposing discrimination, putting it on stage." Mingus suggests that it was Holiday's political edge—she would sing "Strange Fruit" for the rest of her life— and not just her drug use, that made her a target of the law enforcement agencies.

The law went after Holiday relentlessly. In 1947, police in Philadelphia found heroin in Holiday's car but could not arrest her until she was in the vehicle. Holiday's driver got a tip-off and they escaped under a hail of bullets. The next day Holiday was arrested and incarcerated. Kuehl's biggest problem, or so it appears, was her inability to finish her book on Holiday. It seems like a petty complaint when placed alongside the turbulence in Holiday's life.

But if drugs and police caused Holiday persistent woes, the greatest bane of her life were arguably her men. Holiday was cursed by relationships with a string of manipulative and abusive men. When she died on July 17, 1959 of alcohol-related illness she had just $750 to her name. It is hard not to feel saddened at Holiday's demise, but rather than see Holiday as a tragic figure as Erskine's documentary does in part, Kuehl celebrated the singer's free spirit: "She did what she wanted to do with a vengeance," she writes.

Holiday lives on through her music and, in no small way, through the testimony of those interviewed by Linda Lipnack Kuehl. That, and this powerful, if slightly imbalanced documentary may provide some comfort to Kuehl's family, who, decades later, are still processing their grief. As Holiday says in a radio interview: "I guess we all suffer."

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