- Director: James Erskine
- Producer: Victoria Gregory; Barry Clark-Ewers
Quite possibly, fans of the eponymous Lady will wince and grumble.
This is less about the music [and its evolution] and more about her being the victim, the predator and the addict. Additionally, the story of her unpublished biographer [Linda Lipnack Kuehl] who died under suspicious circumstances is thrown in…for some unknown, known only by the filmmaker.
There are two types of biographer: Those who knew [or, at least, met] their subject…and then, there are the fans. Linda Lipnack Kuehl was a fan, she neither met nor experienced Lady Day [perform]. Her extensive interview tapes of family, friends at al. have been widely used throughout the years…then, in walks James Erskine [presumably a fan] with, presumably, the intention of making the [vicariously researched] definitive documentary of this short-lived, great singer’s life…well, sadly, this is not it. To be fair, there will never be a definitive documentary about Lady Day…because most fans only want to hear the pain in her voice…they don’t want to know what put it there!
The is curatorial filmmaking…basically, take someone else’s work, put your own rhyme and reason to that pre-prepared archive and present it to the world as something new, fresh, revelatory…and, to those new to Lady Day, it achieves all that.
But, sadly, Lady Day will garner few new fans [from this film], the kids just ain’t interested in the class acts of yesteryear. This was made by a couple of fans, not really for the fans…c’mon, they all know her story anyway. And, as the fans age and disappear…Lady Day (1959) joins Bessie Smith (1937) & Ma Rainey (1939), three mighty-voiced, bisexual women…who all made it big…even when all the odds were dead against them.
So…timely reminders of herstories are [and will always be] important, necessary…and, welcomed [cynics and critics aside] with opened arms.
To make this film about the incomparable Billie Holiday, director James Erskine (The Ice King, PSIFF 2019) had access to a treasure trove of previously unheard material. In the 1970s, Holiday biographer Linda Lipnack Kuehl recorded hundreds of hours of interviews with the jazz singer’s friends, lovers, musicians, relatives, even the fed who busted her for drugs in 1947 and the oddly jolly pimp who had her turning tricks at 13. Her life was rough, and Billie doesn’t shy away from the wreckage. But out of that pain and a voracious lust for life arose the greatest jazz singer of the century. Featuring generous clips of her performances — her wrenching London rendition of Strange Fruit will chill your bones — and unfiltered insights from Sylvia Syms, Tony Bennett, Count Basie, John Hammond and many others, Billie is essential viewing for anyone who’s fallen under the spell of the great Lady Day.