“I want to know why all the girl singers crack up. They crack up!” That’s Tony Bennett, in voiceover, musing aloud about the fate of the subject of “Billie,” an absorbing new documentary about master jazz singer Billie Holiday that had its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival. Maybe Bennett was also thinking of Judy Garland (subject of “Judy,” a biopic that also screened in Telluride) when he said, almost naively, that as the years progress in these divas’ careers, “something tragic happens. I want to know what that is.”
If you’re inclined to accuse Bennett of sexism for any thoughts about fallen “girl singers,” keep in mind: His Q&A was recorded in the 1970s — as was nearly every other interview in “Billie.” Aside from film clips of the late star herself, the soundtrack for James Erskine’s smart and accessible doc consists almost entirely of previously unheard audio testimony from those who actually knew Holiday, conducted for a planned biography that was scotched when its would-be author passed away in 1979, 20 years after her subject died at age 44.
Bennett might be the only guy from these painstakingly salvaged cassettes who’s still in the land of the living; others interviewed include Holiday’s friends, relatives, band members … even, believe it or not, an arresting officer from one of her notorious drug busts, and a chuckling pimp who pressed her into prostitution as a teenager. All this candid, first-hand testimony comes to feel like dialogue from some forgotten noir that has a gumshoe gathering the pieces of a murder mystery. Holiday’s tragic death is perhaps not all that great a puzzle to solve, but it’s still fascinating to listening to all the posthumous dishing in this gathering of the ghosts.
In an introduction at the film’s festival premiere, one of the producers said she didn’t want Holiday to be remembered as “just a victim.” The key word there is probably “just,” because the victimization and predation are going to run thick in any telling of the Holiday story, as they rightly do here — although Holiday exercised plenty of personal agency outside of as well as within the recording studio, sometimes giving back almost as good as she got when it came to her series of abusive husbands.
If she had a strong masochistic streak, as friends attest, she came by a belief that this was the natural order early on, having been raped as a pre-teen and turning tricks by 13. Fortunately, not everyone took advantage once she became an uptown sensation in the ’30s and superstar of the ’40s and ’50s. “I never slept with Billie,” says John Hammond, the legendary producer-exec credited with discovering her, as if that were an almost unimaginable nobility. Throw in poverty and racism and the real mystery might be why she didn’t crack decades sooner.
Despite her descent into hard drugs, and some headline-making busts beginning in ’47, Holiday managed to avoid melting down as a musician. In one moment late in the film, the bassist on her final recording sessions talks about a photo he took of her in the studio, emaciated and sadly leaning over a vodka glass, saying he felt he captured “the shadow of death.” Seeing that photo onscreen, you might agree.
Quickly after that, though, the doc offers a lengthy excerpt from her final TV appearance, in which Holiday sang a challenging number from “Porgy and Bess,” and she looks and sounds impossibly vibrant, as if she were near the height of her sensual glamour and interpretive powers. So as dreadful as the personality profile becomes, at least there’s no need to avert your gaze from any of the wealth of just about uniformly phenomenal performance footage. Having her onscreen singing “My Man” at length almost takes the sting out of actually learning about her men … almost.
If her troubles are well established enough that there probably won’t be any controversy about how she’s portrayed in “Billie,” there could be a bit of blowback over the colorization all these performance segments and still photos have been subjected to. The filmmakers have said they turned a good deal (not all) of that black-and-white into color to help make Holiday feel vital and relevant to a younger audience. There’s a decent argument to be made for a more purist position, too, but here, having Holiday brought closer to life visually might serve the purpose of making her death feel more tragic, too.
“Billie” does have a couple other arguable takes. Putting an image of Donald Trump on the screen near the end, as part of a contemporary montage meant to represent the racism she faced, takes you out of the movie more than it makes any point — even if there is an entire movie to be made about the past and present ramifications of “Strange Fruit.”
There might also be a tad too much focus on the woman who made those 125 cassettes, Linda Lipnack Kuehl, who was clearly a gifted writer and smart interviewer. Kuehl died in what was deemed a suicide from a hotel balcony in ’79, but family members believe it might have been murder and even related to the Holiday book she’d worked on for years. It’s intimated that the audio flirtation we hear with Count Basie in the interviews might have been more, and that some of his associates were unhappy about it — a conspiratorial detour that’s undeniably fascinating but has the mistimed effect of rendering Holiday’s own end in a hospital kind of mundane by comparison.
Those quibbles aside, “Billie” passes the test for any doomed-singer documentary: There’s a creditable emphasis on the gift, not just the grubbiness. Purely musical insights include Hammond saying, “I heard a singer who was (like) an improvising horn player,” or fellow jazz singer Sylvia Sims remembering Holiday explaining to her that “if you almost cry but don’t quite, that means the audience will cry.” With that maxim in mind, you could say that “Billie” is a movie that almost cries.