Review-Lite: Billie (2020)

Billie Holiday in Billie

James Erskine’s documentary about the late great Billie Holiday is more than an in depth discussion of the dark edges of a powerhouse performer but also a look at the kind of obsessive devotion she encouraged, not just by those she knew but also her audience. Made up of interview recordings collected by journalist Linda Kuehl before her tragic death in 1978, recordings meant to tell the definitive and honest story of Holiday. It’s in this dual narrative that Billie gets lost. While the opening concentrates on Holiday, her destitute formative years and her first steps into stardom, a sequence that speaks to Erskine and Kuehl’s honest intentions not to play to the talent but the person. When Erskine however swings his story around to Kuehl’s mysterious demise amid research for her book on Holiday it hangs a shroud over Holiday’s own tragedies and even her triumphs. There is no doubt this is the definitive take on Holiday, featuring snippets of her distinct, magical voice and real insight into the emotions behind her songs and thanks to Kuehl’s guiding voice, the harsher elements (her drug use, her lively sex life and her arrests) never feel glorified or pitied, instead praised, products necessary for not just Erskine’s narrative but Billie’s mindset. While by the end it might be difficult to know whose story Billie really services, Holiday’s or Kuehl’s, this film of black and white film reels and performances spliced with personal takes on a woman never really known is the full colour version of the woman. Ultimately there is a lingering sadness in a film that wants Billie and Linda’s intertwined story to be a triumph 40 years in the making and a closing coda that drives this darkness home does little to benefit either.


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