Even a casual survey of streaming apps reveals that the late jazz singer, Billie Holiday, is a popular subject. From films ranging from G-rated documentaries to the horrifying (but true) “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” there is no shortage of information about the singer. Those films do not include the performance only films. Clearly, Holiday is a popular subject. But both Holiday and the woman chronicling her life are the subject of “Billie” now streaming on Netflix and Prime Video.
“Billie”: an unusual context
What some viewers will likely respect about “Billie” is the rawness afforded the project because of the writer who has done the work of trying to unravel some of Lady Day’s mystery by recording interviews with people who had worked with her and knew her well. But before viewers even get to the writer’s work that resulted in the film, they learn that the woman’s body was found in the late 1970s in Washington, D.C. The story is picked up briefly at the end of the film. As a result of this organizational style, neither Holiday’s life, nor the life of the woman who attempted to capture who Holiday was, and what she was like is given any justice.
Linda Lipknack Kuehl was an American arts journalist. She decided she wanted to take on Billie Holiday as a subject and recorded many hours of interviews with people who had been close to, or otherwise important to the late singer. Kuehl’s death – – Feb. 6, 1978, was ruled a suicide. But the facts presented, or described by her sister, paint a different story. It seems far-fetched that a suicide would leave on her nightly facial mask and jump from the balcony of a Washington D.C. hotel.
Just a few minutes into the film, audiences already know of two tragedies, and there are no answers for either of the women’s passing. Will there ever be justice for Lipknack Kuehl? Will people stop obsessing over whether or not Holiday was mixed race? Unfortunately, the answer to both of those questions is “no.”
“Billie”: what audiences might want to know
Some of what has been presented by biographers and filmmakers previously is accepted as part of the lore that surrounds the iconic singer. From a variety of accounts, including the singer’s co-authored memoir, Holiday did not have a happy childhood. She was reportedly forced to fend for herself through prostitution at age 13. Physical and sexual abuse took many forms.
Maybe someone should revisit the content of the memoir and Lipknack Kuehl’s work to paint a total picture of Holiday. For audiences who have a serious interest in Holiday, not just because of the music, but because of her experiences as a black young woman in pre-1950s America, there is a constant clamoring for more. What one project leaves out, another includes, and it is difficult to get an entire story.
Linda Lipknack Kuehl: taking a focused, unflinching look at Holiday
Throughout “Billie” audiences cannot help but cheer for Lipknack Kuehl as she at times struggles with getting Holiday’s fellow musicians, friends, and others to be honest about what Holiday did or did not say or do, or ingest. Some audiences will likely be skeptical of the memories of some of the interviewees. Holiday died in 1959. The interviews begin in 1971. Had she lived, the singer would have been 56. Assuming that some of her fellow musicians were older than she, the questioning of certain recollections seems logical.
But the approach that Lipknack Kuehl takes is interesting. Not that she necessarily meant for her work to be filmed, but hearing her voice, and her interactions with people such as Count Basie, Tony Bennett, Charles Mingus, and others is interesting, and carries the relevance that oral histories tend to have.
As Lipknack Kuehl’s interviews play, audiences are treated to home movies. Without saying so, the arrangement reminds viewers that the person who brought the information to the streaming world, was a person, too. A person who died under suspicious circumstances. That the film contains two tragedies might be overwhelming to some audiences. The unresolved nature of Lipknack Kuehl’s death leaves the film with a cliffhanger feel, intended or not.
If audiences have been paying attention to biographical work about Billie Holiday, watching “Billie” will likely only affirm some ideas they already know. However, hearing some of the facts in the voices of those who knew her best, is something that few people could claim and is the biggest selling point of this film.
The double-layered tragedy of “Billie” highlights the vulnerability of women who took on established systems and regimes of masculinity that were not quite ready for them. “Billie” is worth watching.