Billie Holiday didn't just sing her songs. She lived them. She never wanted to be a “blues” singer, but she had plenty of blues too. Her voice was never “prefect,” but its sad beauty made her just about every jazz fan’s favorite vocalist. Journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl was on of them. She conducted hundreds of interviews with Holiday’s colleagues and friends for a book she never lived to finish. Later biographers made use of her tapes, but they have gone unheard by the general public until now. Director James Erskine uses their voices and her music to tell her story in Billie, which releases today on DVD.
Everyone sort of knows a bit of Holiday’s story thanks to the questionable Diana Ross movie, Lady Sings the Blues and the scandalous details of her ghost-written (but better than you might have heard) tell-all memoir on which it was sort of based. She had terrible taste in men, bordering on outright masochism. She also struggled with drug addiction throughout her life, self-medicating for the stress of her abusive relationships and a hostile press.
Of course, she was also a terrific performer, as viewers can plainly hear throughout the film. We also hear the voices of numerous musicians—some famous in their own right, like Count Basie, Charles Mingus, Milt Hinton, and Artie Shaw, who tried to employ her as his band vocalist at a time when integrated bands were not widely accepted. Yet, some of the more interesting and candid reflections come from lesser-known sidemen, like Al Avola, a clarinetist in Shaw’s band and her former accompanists Jimmy Rowles and Bobby Tucker. However, nobody is as blunt-spoken as veteran Basie band drummer Jo Jones.
Holiday only speaks through her music, but that is more than adequate to convey the truth of her life. Billie is nicely constructed, marrying up telling archival video of Holiday and her era with the disembodied testimonials on Kuehl’s tapes. Erskine choses some apt footage (but strangely not her haunting appearance with the legendary tenor-player, Lester Young on The Sound of Jazz.)
It is hard to say which resonate with us more: Holiday’s early recordings with Basie and Young, which were sassy but still bittersweet, or the heartbreaking elegance of her late Ray Ellis arranged sessions, like Lady in Satin. Holiday died in 1959, but in many ways, she remains the definitive jazz vocalist. Erskine’s documentary gives a keen sense of why to viewers who don’t already get her. Highly recommended, Billie releases today (2/9) on DVD.