Movie Review: Billie (2019)

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The way that one interviewee in writer-director James Erskine's new documentary “Billie” tells it, when Ella Fitzgerald sings “My Man's Gone Now,” you think he's on a trip and is due back shortly, but when Billie Holiday does it, you know that man has packed his bags, he's already down the street, and he is never coming back.

Using her voice like a brass instrument to – with Holiday's singular, unorthodox lyrical phrasing, tell vivid, visceral, lived-in stories that cast a spell on her listeners – her friend and fellow jazz vocalist Sylvia Syms sums it up best. “Billie Holiday sang only truth, she knew nothing else.”

As both a word and an idea, “truth” is the quality that comes up most frequently in the film when people describe not just Holiday's voice but her life. And it's only fitting since just one spin of one Billie Holiday record leaves you with the impression that they are inexorably linked. Feeling the same way, in the late 1960s, feminist high school teacher turned freelance journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl embarked on a quest to write the definitive biography on her favorite singer. From Holiday's cousin John Fagan, who recalled her feisty early years to the jazz greats who became her friends, colleagues, and lovers before her untimely death at the age of forty-four in 1959, Kuehl recorded hundreds of hours of interviews with the people who knew the singer born Eleanora Fagan the best. 

In Erskine's documentary, these frequently jaw-dropping, often cited, but previously unheard original audio tapes bring Kuehl and her vital first-person sources back to life. They also give us the briefest of glimpses into what her biography of the artist might have looked like if she'd gotten the chance to finish it. Sadly, much like Holiday, whose career trajectory fascinated her just as much as her self-destructive streak, Kuehl's life was also cut short. Nearly a decade after she began working on the book, the young journalist was found dead on a Washington D.C. street in a mysterious event that her family believes was perhaps linked to this quest.

Wanting to accurately represent Billie Holiday as she was and not just pay tribute to her as a legend, while on the surface, a white, Jewish teacher from New York who wrote about women's issues for publications like “The Paris Review” seems like she would have little in common with Holiday, Kuehl's sister dispels this belief early on in the film. Telling viewers that Linda identified with the singer's pain and didn't like the way she'd been portrayed as a victim, Kuehl herself backs up this thesis later on in her manuscript, saying that although the sexually voracious Holiday was often in relationships with abusive men, in the end, it was she who chose these partners for one reason or another.

Keeping an objective approach, even when she interviews a pimp that Holiday tricked for when she was a young girl, much like Kuehl, Erskine's film and Holiday's friends paint a portrait of a woman who loved to live fast for all of its ups and downs. It seems perhaps that Holiday knew her time on Earth was short. Exploring all facets of her personality from her two favorite expletives to her bisexuality, even when friends tell horrific stories about the men who graduated her from pot to hard drugs or beat her senseless (and some openly question whether or not she was, in fact, a masochist), Erskine strives to follow in Kuehl's nonjudgmental footsteps. 

Despite this, of course, some of these testimonies are absolutely devastating. Chronicling the way that Holiday and other Black artists were subjected to the shocking racism of America during the Jim Crow laws, interviewees describe Holiday's experiences ranging from club owners making her “darken” up her face to an actual brawl that broke out with a racist, white sheriff in the south. Using the truth of her voice and her ability to tell a story in song, Holiday's response to these injustices was with the powerful anthem “Strange Fruit,” which sadly remains just as timely and moving as ever, more than eighty years after it was recorded.

An eye-opening and engrossing overview of Holiday's life that will hopefully make you seek out, as I did, more information about the events and figures referenced in the film, while it's largely very successful from a narrative standpoint, occasionally, "Billie" struggles with its chronological presentation of facts. Hopscotching around to add new details about pivotal moments in Holiday's life that we wish we would've known earlier, this rings a particularly false note when, late into the movie, we jump awkwardly from one interviewee's analysis of her abusive relationships to the sudden revelation that she might've been raped as a child. While reflective of the way that Kuehl would've heard these confessions at various times throughout her decade-long research, I question the decision to save something so major for near the end of "Billie," particularly when it would've added a crucial counterpoint to the predominantly male recollections of her youth turning tricks, including an ex-pimp's testimony that his girls loved getting a black eye. 

Still, knowing that Billie Holiday was Kuehl's raison d'ĂȘtre, particularly in her final years, Erskine’s film pays fine tribute to her beloved subject and Kuehl's journalistic legacy overall. Working in a few facts about Holiday's biographer here and there, Erskine is smart to keep Kuehl's private life off the table until very late into the documentary, when we hear that she had been divorced twice, was perhaps romantically linked to one legendary interviewee, and had started to receive threats regarding that relationship and her book.

Although we would like to know more about her life and work, in her relative anonymity, Erskine taps into the link that not only Kuehl and Holiday share but many women and men do with the singer as well. Instead of openly philosophizing, he lets Kuehl's interviewees try to articulate it aloud when they discuss what they respond to most in Holiday's life and music. And while obviously, their words add vivid color to the black and white photographs utilized throughout, the most unforgettable hue of all comes not from them but Billie Holiday herself. We hear it in the heartbreaking lyrics she sings, the words she means, and the way she uses her instrument inimitably, unreservedly, and unmistakably to tell the truth, even when it hurts. 

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