Coming to select theatres and to VOD today, Friday, December 4:
Palm Springs, Tempo Doc, Boulder, Deauville, Glasgow
A portrait of Billie Holiday through the perspective of her would-be biographer.
In 1971, journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl began research for a biography of legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday, who had died at the age of 44 in 1959. Kuehl spent the next seven years interviewing Holiday’s family, friends, bandmates, and partners, attempting to give due to Lady Day, whose reputation had been sullied by drug charges. The journalist didn’t shy away from the more risqué elements of Holiday’s background, including prostitution, drug use, and various sexual escapades, as well as the harsh reality she experienced as a Black woman in a time of open discrimination and racism. In 1978, before the biography was completed, however, Kuehl died in what was ruled as a suicide. Her family suspected foul play, but, in their grief, did not push for further investigation. While her research was used in subsequent Holliday biographies, James Erskine’s documentary is the first film that draws from it. Curiously, Erskine chooses to weave in Kuehl’s story in parallel with Holiday’s, though, thankfully, the singer still takes precedence. This approach is not wholly successful, with the Kuehl behind-the-scenes elements feeling like a distraction, and no theory sufficiently developed as to why she might have been killed, though learning a bit about the journalist helps to contextualize some of the more heated or revealing exchanges she captured on audio tape. A sequence in the film notes that Kuehl pointedly acknowledged her privilege and status as a white woman telling the story of a Black woman – which could make Kuehl somewhat of a surrogate for Erskine, a white filmmaker telling Holiday’s story – and more might have been done to parse out how this impacted her research, access, and approach to her biography. Still, despite its dual focus, the film provides viewers with intimate perspectives on Holiday that capture her complexity.