Director: James Erskine
Runtime: 1h 36m
Cast: Billie Holiday, Tony Bennett, Sylvia Syms, Count Basie, Charles Mingus
Synopsis: ‘Lady Day’ was one of the greatest jazz vocalists the world ever heard. In 1971, journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl set out to write the definitive biography of Billie Holiday. Before her mysterious death in 1978, Kuehl had taped over 200 hours of interviews. The tapes have never before been heard. Now they form the basis of an atmospheric, multi-layered documentary that captures the many complex facets of a short, tumultuous life of a proud black woman and unforgettable singer of ‘God Bless the Child’, and the haunting ‘Strange Fruit’.
Writer & Director James Erskine [The Ice King (2018), Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist (2014), The Battle of the Sexes (2013), Sachin: A Billion Dreams (2017), Shooting for Socrates (2014)] has crafted Billie from an extraordinary collection of unheard interviews, and has restored key performances into colour for the first time. The film is the story of the singer who changed the face of American music, and the parallel story of the journalist who tried to tell it.
Billie Holiday had one of the greatest voices of all time. She was a woman of breath-taking talent and global popularity while also a figure of controversy. She stirred feelings of rebellion singing ‘Strange Fruit’, which exposed the realities of black life in America and earned her powerful enemies. Raw, emotional and brutally honest, Billie is filled with never-before-heard interviews from musical greats like Charles Mingus, Tony Bennett, Sylvia Syms and Count Basie.
Billie Holiday’s troubled brilliance as a singer, activist, sex machine and addict is uncovered in the lost tapes, to tell the intimate real story of the jazz singer – a tale with great resonance today as the US black community continues to fight institutional racism.
Billie Holiday was born in Philadelphia, USA, in 1915 to a poor black family, growing up to be a woman who has been sexually assaulted – raped at ten years old. She had to struggle to try to find a place for herself in the world, while constantly battling gender and racial inequality.
Kuehl’s interviews reveal details of Holiday’s exploitative and abusive husbands and boyfriends, violent men who would knock her out in the street – and how Holiday wasn’t afraid to fight back.
As well as her childhood traumas, the film documents the constant humiliations and racism she experienced. She wasn’t allowed to use venue front doors and had to search out restrooms and restaurants she could use, adopting strategies like ordering two burgers when she was served – one to take in her handbag because she never knew when she would be served again. She spent months touring the South with Artie Shaw’s white band when she had to search for hotels to sleep in – not being allowed to stay in the accommodation used by the rest of the musicians.
The film confirms Billie Holiday as one of the greatest voices of all time, a woman of breath-taking talent and global popularity, and the film incorporates her stunning repertoire of work.
Throughout her short life she remained a figure of controversy – a black woman in a white man’s world, while performances and recordings of the protest song ‘Strange Fruit’ lyrics by Abel Meeropol earned her powerful enemies. She was also an enigma, her telling of her own life story a mix of half-truths and free-form improvisations.
In the late1960s journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl set out to write the definitive biography of Billie. Over the next decade, she tracked down and tape-recorded interviews with the extraordinary characters that populated the iconic singer’s short, tumultuous life. Raw, emotional and brutally honest, these incredible testimonies range from musical greats like Charles Mingus, Tony Bennett, Sylvia Syms and Count Basie to her cousin, schoolfriends, lovers, lawyers, pimps and even the FBI agents who arrested her. But Kuehl’s book was never finished and the tapes lay unheard – until now.
With unprecedented and exclusive access to Kuehl’s astonishing 200 hours of never-before-heard interviews, Billie showcases an American legend, capturing her depths and complexity through the voices of those who knew her best. Painstakingly restored with footage and stills colourized by one of the leading colour artists, Marina Amaral, it is an arresting and powerful tale of one of the greatest singers who ever lived, and of Linda Lipnack Kuehl, the woman who would sacrifice her life in trying to tell it.
Images courtesy of Altitude Films