James Erskine, USA 2020
Telling the intimate and heartbreaking story of the late American jazz singer Billie Holiday, Erskine draws upon the compelling 1970’s interview material from the impassioned journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl. Although Kuehl managed to conduct more than 125 audio interviews with those who knew Billie best between 1971 and 1979, she passed away unexpectedly in 1979, leaving her project unfinished.
Born in Philadelphia in 1915, Billie Holiday was raised in poverty in Baltimore, only to move to New York in 1928 where she sang at clubs in Harlem. Spotted by the American record producer John Hammond, who later introduced her to Count Basie, Holiday’s arrival at Greenwich Village’s infamous Café Society nightclub catapulted her into stardom, most notably with her recording the racially-charged “Strange Fruit” in 1939. This song was written into her contract, which left her singing that song until her death from heart failure at the age of 44 in 1959.
While the film doesn’t shy away from the racism, heroin addiction, drug arrests, and domestic abuse that Holiday suffered, it’s a raw character study that paints Holiday as both antagonistic and vulnerable, someone who never sacrificed her love of music or her integrity.
An evocative experience, Billie gives us a closer look at her incredible music career as well as her cultural impact.