review

Billie: In Search of Billie Holiday

by Esme Garlake | 02 April 2021

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Image taken from: 'Billie: In Search of Billie Holiday' on BBC

Any fan of Billie Holiday will tell you that her voice makes you feel as if she is talking directly to you, and you alone. Paradoxically, it is precisely this intimate quality that makes her one of the most beloved and celebrated jazz singers of all time. As a huge Holiday fan myself, when I heard about the new documentary about her life and work, ‘Billie: In Search of Billie Holiday’, I had one of those strange moments when you realise that your hero belongs to so many others.

That idea of Holiday ‘belonging’ to others is fundamental to understanding her life and legacy, and the documentary does very well to put this at its centre. Structurally, the film revolves around the work of journalist Linda Kuehl who from 1972 onwards dedicated herself to writing a biography of Billie Holiday. Kuehl’s untimely death – a suspected murder in 1978 – left the biography incomplete. The documentary, therefore, hinges almost entirely on Kuehl’s taped interviews and extracts of writing left unpublished until now.

Kuehl’s mission to look beyond the myth of Billie Holiday is cleverly juxtaposed with the writer’s obsession with the singer: her sister recalls that for Kuehl, the project represented ‘the voice that she wanted Billie to have’. In many ways, framing Holiday’s life in relation to an individual researcher succeeds in encouraging viewers to interrogate questions of reliability from sources and personal accounts. It gives the documentary a refreshing self-awareness that allows space for questioning how we study and write about historical, quasi-mythical figures.

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Image taken from: 'Billie: In Search of Billie Holiday'

The documentary covers Holiday’s life in loose chronological order, and much of the information coincides with her autobiography ‘Lady Sings The Blues’, published in 1956 three years before Holiday’s death. Her bisexuality, including her relationship with famed actress Tallulah Bankhead, in addition to her fraught relationship with her mother and her childhood traumas of sexual assault and prostitution are all explored, primarily through tape recordings from interviews with Holiday’s friends, lovers, acquaintances and even law officials. We gain a sense of the networks and circles that Holiday inhabited, the complicated dynamics in so many of these relationships, as well as her pride and force of character. Crucially, Holiday is allowed nuance throughout the film: her self-destructive tendencies and lack of self-confidence are not pitted against her more charismatic or glamorous traits. Viewers have a sense of joining Kuehl on her search for the ‘real’ Billie Holiday, which is sure to delight any Holiday fan.

 

Yet most would agree that this search ultimately fails, and not only because Kuehl’s research was tragically left unfinished. Most likely it is because Holiday is simply unknowable: one friend says that even those who thought they knew her best didn’t know her at all. Yet I wonder whether the documentary could have got closer to ‘finding’ Billie Holiday had there been less focus on Kuehl’s life. At points, it felt as if the documentary is trying to do too much at once. By looking at the lives of two women in an attempt to richen each biography, it possibly spreads each one too thin.

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Illustrations by Esme Garlake

Nonetheless, it is a credit to Kuehl’s approach that the film can move beyond (in the journalist’s words) ‘the romantic myth of tortured artist and helpless junkie’, and to recognise that Holiday was ‘forced to play the white man’s game in a world where a woman’s voice was second place and an African-American’s barely heard at all.’ Holiday’s personal struggles are sensitively presented throughout the film within the broader context of racial discrimination in the United States, and particularly that of police and legal institutions – the relevance for today is starkly clear.

 

Visually, the documentary is impressively rich, particularly considering that it is made up almost entirely of audio recordings. Historical footage of New Orleans and New York, as well as highly disturbing images from the Jim Crow era, are woven in between colorised images and clips of Holiday. For me, these colorised images are the highlight of the film, reminiscent of the magic and poignancy in the colorised World War One documentary ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’ (2018). Holiday seems closer in colour, but still somehow unreachable. Roland Barthes’ description of colour on photographs as ‘an artifice, a cosmetic… like the kind used to paint corpses’ presents a useful metaphor for the search for Holiday. We can colour her image as much as we want, but the true Billie Holiday remains somewhere underneath the façade, still unknown.

 

‘Billie: In Search of Billie Holiday’ is available here on BBC iplayer