Directed by: James Erskine
UK, 2019, 96m
Billie Holiday might be the greatest jazz vocalist who ever lived, but her life was never easy. Racism, sexual abuse, drug addiction, prostitution, domestic violence, alcoholism—with such a mountain of sorrows, it’s a wonder she was ever able to perform. But that was her secret. As she once told a friend, “If you almost cry but don’t quite, that means the audience will cry.” A typical music doc about Billie might mention these troubles in passing and focus instead on polishing the legend. Director Erskine has something different in mind. It starts with astounding source material. Almost every interview here comes from recordings made in the 1970s by Linda Kuehl, an author who mysteriously died before she could write her Billie bio. Kuehl interviewed Billie’s friends, relatives, former arresting officers, an ex-pimp, and many, many fellow jazz musicians. Almost every one of them is long dead, so we eavesdrop on ghosts casually dishing about their friend Billie’s musical genius as well as her masochist streak, lesbian affairs, doomed relationships, descent into hard drugs, and her early death at 44. The effect is unnerving as Billie’s contemporaries are unguarded and chatty (Kuehl was an excellent interviewer). Balanced with wall-to-wall music and lots of performance footage, Erskine deftly constructs a tale that is entrancing and gossipy, revealing Billie not only as a legendary talent, but also a tortured soul who lived the pain of every melancholy lyric she sang.