Saying that this riveting telling of the life of Billie Holiday is our second favourite music documentary of the past few years does not seem like the compliment it is until we remind you that our favourite was the sublime Amazing Grace centered on Aretha Franklin.
Whereas Amazing Grace focuses on the vocal experience of two of Franklin’s performances this richly layered history of Holiday manages to include the stunning music alongside the racial politics, the music industries gossipy backbiting, the impact on popular culture and her disastrous private life.
The material is stacked together like the notes of a biographer. This deliberately reflects the unfinished book by LInda Lipnack Kuehl who died in a suspicious suicide before she could share her complete work. Audio interview clips are interspersed with a much larger than expected amount of video of Lady Day performing. Considering she only partly straddled the television era it is fortunate how many of her performances were captured on film.
It’s pointless trying to say how good Holiday’s voice was. Just listen. But James Erskine manages to select the right songs to tell her story, not just showcase her voice. The longest time is given to Strange Fruit, one of the most important protest songs to shape the direction of American music. It is the most damning indictment of the terrorist tactics employed by white supremacists. The song caused riots when she performed it and walkouts by rich white audiences who were used to heading to Harlem for a fun break from Prohibition. She refused to stop singing it and had to leave her label to record it. More than anything else that made her the target for police drug raids. They normally focused on the dealers not their customers but this successful black woman with jewels, furs and a voice was too inviting to law enforcement careerists in an era where racialized policing was unquestioned.
Holiday’s messy private life is largely familiar. A prostitute at the age of 13 and a junkie in middle age. Repeatedly masochistic heterosexual relationships surrounded by a sufficient number of female lovers to be referred to as ‘Mr Billie’ Her impulsive life and hard partying led to her death of heart failure at aged 44. That is the tabloid material. But Erskine makes enough of the music industry context, the politics of the age and the cultural backstory to elevate Holiday above her personal demons. Holiday was in the center of the tides of her time. She was one of the highest paid black artists, playing to audiences of all races, but still had to sleep in a car while her white band were allowed to stay in hotels.
Holiday did not write Strange Fruit but only she was able to champion it. Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun referred to it as “a declaration of war… the start of the Civil Rights Movement’. In 1999 Time magazine made it the Song of the Century. If any human had to be defined by one song, make it that one.
Review by ANDREW HEBDEN
Queerguru Contributing Editor ANDREW HEBDEN is a MEDIA & CULTURAL STUDIES graduate spending his career between London, Beijing and NYC as an expert in media and social trends. As part of the expanding minimalist FIRE movement he recently returned to the UK and lives in Soho. He devotes as much time as possible to the movies, theatre and the gym. His favorite thing is to try something (anything) new every day.