Billie Holiday Doc Review

Billie, a new documentary on the life of legendary singer Billie Holiday, was directed and produced by James Erskine – with an enormous debt to Linda Kuehl, a journalist who died mysteriously in 1978 after 10 years spent researching Holiday’s life for a planned biography.

Kuehl left behind a treasure trove of audio tapes containing interviews with people who knew Holiday firsthand before the singer’s death in 1959 from alcohol and drug-related complications. Some subjects went way back to when Holiday was just a teenager in Baltimore, such as her then-pimp. Others knew her later on, such as a narcotics agent who followed her for many years. But most of Kuehl’s interviews were with Holiday’s fellow singers and musicians, such as Charles Mingus, Tony Bennett, Sylvia Syms and Count Basie.

Excerpts from these tapes, never before heard by the public, form the basis of Erskine’s film, amounting to a true “oral history” of the singer and all her excesses. A future generation would sum up similar excesses with the phrase, “sex, drugs and rock and roll.”

Erskine combines the audio excerpts with vintage film of Holiday in performance, some of them colorized so expertly that I had no idea about it until Erskine talked about the process with Michele Smith, manager of the Billie Holiday Estate, in a recent conversation presented by New York’s 92Y.

Also in the discussion, Erskine noted that Holiday endured “suffering upon suffering upon suffering.”

Billie documentary

Yes, she was persecuted and victimized throughout her life, with much of her pain self-inflicted. But, by bringing out Holiday’s humanity through the audio interviews, vibrant imagery and, of course, her stunning performances, Billie provides a complete portrait of the legend for perhaps the first time ever.

There’s also a subplot in the film, the parallel story of Linda Kuehl, who couldn’t quite pin down the Billie Holiday she wanted to get on the page. One person we don’t hear Kuehl interview is Holiday’s husband for her final five years: Louis McKay, a former mob enforcer and the last in a line of abusing, conniving, thieving lovers.

During the Blizzard of ’78, Linda Kuehl was found dead in Washington, DC. The police said she committed suicide by jumping out of her hotel room window, but it’s apparent from an end scroll in the movie – noting that the DC police no longer had evidence sought by the producers —that Erskine harbors some doubts. So does Kuehl’s sister, who provides key testimony for the film’s parallel story.

In the end, though, according to Erskine, “I feel we completed Linda’s journey.”

Starting today, December 4, you can stream Billie for $5.99 from Amazon, FandangoNow, Google Play, iTunes or Vudu.

(Photos sources: IMDb)

About Les Luchter

Les Luchter is a former managing editor of Multichannel News, editor-in-chief of Cable Marketing, and news editor of Broadcast Week.

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