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In a new Billie Holiday documentary, friends fill in the missing notes
In the opening performance of a new documentary, Billie Holiday is mesmerizing in full color. The original, decades-old footage has been colorized for emphasis, like the way her eyebrow arches to punctuate a lyric as she sings.
The scene is also a mission statement of sorts: The film, “Billie,” wants to go beyond the black-and-white — and incomplete — narrative of self-destructive jazz artists.
Shortly after that opening scene, Sylvia Syms, herself an admired jazz singer and friend of Holiday’s, is heard on tape saying that she “saw the whole world in that face. All of the beauty and all of the misery.”
“Billie” covers biographical details about Holiday that have filled past books and articles: drug use, her sexuality, and the abuse she experienced before her death in 1959. The documentary is also organized around approximately 200 hours of interviews conducted over the course of a decade by Linda Lipnack Kuehl, who, as the film notes, didn’t like seeing Holiday presented as a victim.
Director James Erskine said a guiding principle for the documentary was to build a narrative around Kuehl’s tapes of reporting as “eyewitness accounts” from people who had conversations with Holiday or witnessed something that happened in the singer’s life.
“We wanted to encounter these eyewitnesses and create an emotional relationship with Billie through those encounters rather than editing them together in a kind of conventional documentary way,” he told the PBS NewsHour. “Part of the film is actually about the unknowability of people. People capture Billie Holiday for a moment in their lives and then she’s gone, and she’s on the road somewhere else.”
Part of the documentary’s goal is also to be “all-encompassing” of Holiday’s story, in presenting all the “indecencies she had to face,” said Michele Smith, co-executive producer of the flim and vice president of the Billie Holiday estate.
And “Billie” seeks to underscore the sources of that misery. Among them is the weight of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. (A narcotics agent is heard in a taped interview with Kuehl saying the bureau kept Holiday under observation “night and day” for drug possession.) She also slept on her tour bus when a hotel had a racist whites-only policy. Holiday, who had lighter skin, was also required to darken her skin with make-up to perform at some venues.
Jo Jones, a Black drummer who toured with Holiday, also questions whether Kuehl, a white journalist, can understand the racism the singer faced throughout her life. Jones, frustrated and angry, explained to Kuehl that Holiday, at the time, didn’t have the privilege of using a toilet.
“The boys at least could go out in the woods,” Jones is heard saying to Kuehl. “You don’t know anything about it because you never had to subjugate yourself to it. Never.”
“[Jones] is so protective of Billie Holiday,” Smith said. “And basically he’s like, ‘You don’t understand what it was like for her to live as a Black woman in America, at that time.’ And you feel his protection, his anger.”
Many of the voices heard in the documentary — with some exceptions like Tony Bennett — are dead. Amid all these taped accounts, the film also tells a concurrent story about Kuehl and her unfinished biography of Holiday.
Kuehl died in 1978. Her death was ruled a suicide. However, Kuehl’s sister appears in the documentary to say that the family doesn’t think it was death by suicide. And while Holiday is the star of this film, director Erskine said, Kuehl’s story was also incorporated throughout the production because of the journalist’s perspective as a woman looking into Billie’s story, which was “previously been largely told by men, almost exclusively told by men.”
The PBS NewsHour’s Jeffrey Brown spoke with Erskine on how the documentary approaches Holiday’s story, as well as Kuehl’s, and how it addresses all of the unknowns that go along with a star whose career, in some ways, was left unfinished. (The documentary was released Dec. 4 on video-on-demand.)
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
This is an unusual film. It’s based on the interviews and work done by a woman named Linda Lipnack Kuehl, who worked on her own biography on Billie Holiday. How did this film come about for you, and why did you take it on?
Around 2016, 2017, a producer came to me and said, “Is there a musician you want to make a film about?” And I said, “Well, you know, actually there is one musician, and it’s Billie Holiday.” And he said, “Oh, why Billie Holiday?” And I said, “Well, actually, it’s not just Billie Holiday. I’ve heard this story about this biographer, who in the 1970s, went off and tried to tell Billie’s story. And she died before she finished it.” And then I said, “But the other thing about it is that I hear that she recorded all of her interviews on audio cassette. I don’t know where they are, but if they still existed, I think that would be the substance of making a documentary.” And so he went off and a couple of months later, he came back and said, “I found the guy who’s got the tapes.”
[W]e then negotiated access, but we didn’t know these tapes were recorded in the early 1970s. And old audio cassettes tend to deteriorate, and they weren’t obviously recorded for broadcast. And so, we flew to New York actually, and went to the studio in Chelsea and got a specialist technician in. And the tape survived and in a shoe box. And we started looking through them and I was like, “OK, which one are we going to put up first?” The first one I picked out was actually Charles Mingus. I was a big Charles Mingus fan. I said, “I wanted to hear what Mingus is going to say about Billie Holiday.”
What was that like? What was the experience of hearing that?
I think one of the things that’s a strength in making the film was we put it on and it wasn’t like any other interview that I’d ever heard before. You were immediately transported back to the 1950s. He was talking about a specific concert, I think, in Chicago. And you were immediately transported back to being on stage with Billie there and all the jazz greats, and sort of seeing this perspective that was just kind of — it wasn’t just what was being said on the tapes that was insightful. It was the atmosphere which sort of flowed out of the tapes, you know? And, to me, was like, this is something special.
Tell me a little bit about the formal construction of the film from your end because you have to gather more than 200 hours of tape. You had to pick and choose. You had to create a narrative arc out of that. What kind of difficult decisions did you face?
When we started out, we realized that there were sort of two things that we really wanted to wrestle with. One is that although there’s 200 hours of people talking about Billie Holiday, who knew her very well and in an incredibly intimate way — there’s not a lot of Billie Holiday. Where Billie Holiday exists is really in her recordings and in her film performances. And it was clear to me, at the very beginning, that we needed to run the tapes in parallel to Billie, in a way, telling her own story the way that she told it best, which was on songs. So on one hand, we set out and we said, “OK. We want Billie to be in this film, so we’ve got to find film performances,” and we run around the world, and we looked for any film performances [that] existed still and had survived. And we lay the film out like a musical. We said, “OK, this is how the story of the film is going to be told musically.” And then on the other hand, we had these 200 hours of tapes, you know, very few of which were transcribed or transcribed properly and no real way of knowing how to come into them. And often they were very badly recorded and you can barely hear them.
But what we decided is a sort of guiding principle was that what’s brilliant about these tapes is that they’re eyewitness accounts. So we said, “OK, we’re only going to use excerpts of the tapes where people are talking about an event that they actually witnessed or participated in or they are relaying a conversation that they directly had with Billie Holiday about something that happened in her life.” And actually, that was a really good guiding principle, because then we wanted to encounter these eyewitnesses and create an emotional relationship with Billie through those encounters rather than editing them together in a kind of conventional documentary way. I mean, part of the film is actually about the unknowability of people. People capture Billie Holiday for a moment in their lives and then she’s gone, and she’s on the road somewhere else.
That’s an interesting idea — the unknowability of somebody — that you’re making a documentary biography about, right? What portrait of her do you think did emerge from listening to these tapes especially?
If one was to try and make a Billie Holiday film today, from scratch, you’d go out and you’d interview experts and they would relay stuff by hearsay and repeat other conversations that had been written down. Only a couple of people still survive who knew Billie Holiday, you know? One being the musician Corky Hale who’s still alive in Los Angeles. So you could give an eyewitness account of a very short period of her life. But I think what we found is we wanted to basically create all the sections of her life. So there were her childhood friends, those people who knew her in the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s. And what emerged was actually a portrait of somebody who was an incredibly strong person, who may have been previously portrayed as a victim, but was actually somebody who really most of the time triumphed against the odds and was a brave and strong person who was willing to stand up and say, “No, I will not tolerate this any longer.” Whether that’s being told she has to walk through the back door of the restaurant versus the rest of the band who are white and she is Black. The crux of the film is centered around “Strange Fruit” and her decision to record that song and then not just to record it once, but to perform that song almost every night of her life for 20 years. A song which is — was very confrontational in lots of senses. It was holding a mirror to the crimes of America versus to Black people.
We see her making choices, in the music — “Strange Fruit,” you mentioned, in her lifestyle, sexuality, much about her. But at the same time, almost destroyed by a series of men her life, how do you account for these sides of her?
I don’t want to make the audience’s mind up, but we try to portray in the film somebody who is abused from childhood. She’s abused. She grows up, not really receiving love in a kind of nice, warm sense, be that paternal love or any other sort of love, you know? It’s a violent society through which she emerges. When she chooses to be with John Levy, she’s choosing to be with someone who’s a gangster, who’s a nightclub owner, who is somebody who is very powerful in that world. So whilst he physically assaults her … she also physically assaults him back at times, you know? He also protects her, facilitates her in a way, if she was with that sort of piano player who may also be abusive, may also be a junkie, she wouldn’t be getting the same level of protection, the guarantee of getting her money at the end of the night. So I think it’s a very complex relationship between power, somebody who is oppressed, but willing to stand up for themselves.
One of the constant things you mentioned is the racism throughout her life. There is that incredibly powerful moment when Jo Jones, the drummer, is talking about the trips they would take to the South where she wasn’t allowed to use the bathroom, had to sleep in the car. And at one point, a friend talks about her having to pack an extra hamburger because she wasn’t sure where she could eat. This was clearly one of the strains in her life.
Billie suffered a huge, huge amount of racism. She was oppressed on many levels. She was oppressed because she was a woman. And I think that’s a big part she’s communicated through this film, and she was oppressed because of the color of her skin. She was oppressed because she was poor when she grew up in Baltimore. She was disowned to a large extent by her family. And, to me, it’s extraordinary. You’ve got this woman who is so beautiful and so powerful and so talented. And her job is to entertain people and people will pay to see her, but they don’t want to see her. Do you know what I mean? They’ll pay to see her sing for three minutes, but then she has to erase herself. I mean, it’s truly terrible and truly terrifying the privation that she had to suffer. And Jo Jones touches on it. I mean, he goes a lot more into the tapes and a lot more detail, which is in the film. But it’s given in those two lines of the things that she has to suffer the indignity of it all. You know, if you suffered the indignities that Billie suffered, every day of our life, at every turn, it’s no wonder she still seeks refuge in a bottle or in drugs. There’s an interesting review which said, actually one of the most remarkable things the film shows you about Billie is not that she suffered and died at the age of 44, but she survived that long, given the duress she was put under.
I also saw you made a decision to kind of bring the story up to date with video of our own time.
Yeah, the film is working on three timelines. The film is working on a timeline of Billie’s life, it’s working on the timeline of Linda’s life, which is the 1970s. You know, we wanted to be conscious of that perspective, you know, and then, of course, the film is being made now. When I was making the film, it sort of felt like there were a lot of evident truths that we were walking back over in a sense, when Billy Eckstine talks about cultural appropriation, it felt like this was like a conversation which felt important to reiterate, but it wasn’t the conversation of the moment. And yet, films sort of change in the way the time the audience sees them. And now it feels like a film which is extraordinarily about now and that Billie’s life is a reminder of our failures of the past. We failed to address what happened to Billie Holiday 60, 70, 80 years ago. In the film, we use more contemporary footage because towards the end, as Jo Jones is talking, makes a very powerful speech [in the 1970s], about things not really changing, but he’s talking to us now and he’s talking about our world as much as he’s talking about the world of the 1970s, though, the world of the 1930s. And we use that footage because it is shocking. And we all need to stand up and address this and get over the sense of superiority, the patriarchy and suppression of people and labeling of people. I mean, labeling is a big thing in the film when people describe her in certain ways that we show. And those labels are very powerful. If you’re told you’re less than, it’s very hard, and everybody says, “It’s OK to say this person is less than,” you’ve got to confront that stuff. We’ve got to confront that stuff. All of us, all of us in the media, you know, everybody in politics, you can’t repeat this stuff, you know, and not be conscious of your words, which will hang there for decades.
To come back to this idea of you making a story based on a story that somebody else was trying to do — Linda. And you had to make a decision of how important a role she played. She played a larger role in the movie than I expected, and I wonder how you thought about it. Almost a kind of parallel lives in your storytelling.
When we commenced the film, we had the tapes, of which you hear Linda’s voice quite a lot. And we knew we wanted to tell a story about Billie Holiday. And the film is called “Billie.” And 90 percent of the movie or more is about Billie Holiday. She is the star — it’s her tragedy that the film tries to really explore. But it became clear to us [when] we started making the film that Linda’s perspective — her perspective as a woman interviewing, which was her mission — was to be a woman looking at Billie’s story, [which] was previously been largely told by men, almost exclusively told by men. … You needed to understand the time and the place in which these things were recorded. And so Linda and her interviewing style became a bigger part of it. And as we made the film, we befriended Linda’s family and they had not talked about Linda for a long time. And we wanted to sort of explore a small amount of the impact of why Linda didn’t finish the story. Why is Billie’s story so horrible that you can’t finish the story? Why is it so enormous that this biographer can’t capture the power of her voice, you know? And it felt to me that I never really wanted to fully conclude that story. And it’s a very fine line in terms of how much, Linda, you know, we want in the movie. Linda’s story is fascinating, but this movie is about Billie. So people are speaking from their opinions. It’s a subjective viewpoint at all times. And because we use the structure of film noir, you know, sometimes the truth is — like it is in everybody’s life — just slightly out of grasp. And I wanted you to have that feeling of uncanniness and, really, the end of it, all you can do and when we finish the movie, as you sit back and you see Billie perform and that’s what stands. The artwork extends. The life is fascinating, but it’s the art that ultimately should stand there hanging on the wall. Mona Lisa is more interesting than Leonardo da Vinci, you know, and Billie Holiday singing is more interesting than Billie Holiday’s life and will be an inspiration and a challenge to people for decades to come.