James Erskine’s Billie is a little gem of a documentary, more oral history than biography.
That is arrives streaming this week with little fanfare is mildly surprising but entirely shocking. Even in non-pandemic years, the vagaries of awards campaigns are many. In the documentary field, it is hard for even a well-financed and distributed film to get much attention.
But that’s not the whole story. Billie had a festival run, as many documentaries do. Early responses that I read were muted, with some chiding the film for integrating the story of journalist Linda Lipnak Kuehl, whose taped interviews for a Holiday biography comprise the substance of the documentary’s new information.
I found the explanation of how the tapes surfaced to be neither distracting nor superfluous. It is the nature of archival troves that they have not yet been edited and curated, and since Kuehl died before she could finish her project the tapes aren’t necessarily organized is the most linear fashion.
But if you’ve ever read one of Studs Terkel’s oral histories, you understand that what is lost in precision is more than compensated for in breadth and immediacy. There is commentary here from Tony Bennett, Count Basie, Jo Jones, Detroit Red…the mere existence of these previously unheard interviews is enough to justify a documentary.
I suppose the other possible knock against the Billie is that it is less focused on Holiday herself than some fans might wish. As is the case with oral histories, the film is as much a chronicle of the spaces and places as it is a portrait of any one indvidual. It is full of authenticating details and all the jagged edges of history. Was Holiday fired by John Hammond or did she quit? Was she really pressured to wear blackface because her skin tone was too light? How different were after hours clubs from the more famously chronicled Cotton Club? Did Holiday really carry a hamburger in her purse because she was used to being denied service in segregated areas?
For those who aren’t already fans of Holiday, there are a number of performance pieces, highlighted by her peerless rendition of “Strange Fruit.” It is slightly disorienting that some of these are colorized — but in an odd way, even that decision pays dividends. It makes the performances feel less distant, more recent, which in turn underlines how little the emotional effects of racism have changed.