James Erskine has made some powerful sports docs – on Gazza’s tears, Pantani’s cycling, John Curry on the ice, and the Battle of the Sexes between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. He turns his attention to jazz great Billie Holiday now, with this illuminating film about her, built around tapes of audio interviews discovered in the archive of a late New York journalist, Linda Lipnack Kuehel. She was trying to interview everyone who worked with and knew Billie, from Tony Bennett to Count Basie and old family friends from the Baltimore neighbourhood where she grew up and turned her first tricks as a 13-year-old prostitute.
Keuhel’s is a story of detective work and biography that itself had fatal consequences, and this lends Erskine’s film another layer of intrigue and tragedy, perhaps signalling the prurient obsession we have with the vagaries and vicissitudes of the jazz life, the grubby romanticism of drugs, abuse, racism, and the blues being all the things that make it so compelling to listen to.
Erskine has great images and the interviews are grippingly vivid but he also, as ever, uses archive wisely and there are some wonderful performances of Billie’s music which come in as perfect illustrations of what we’re hearing about her life, songs such as My Man, I Loves You Porgy, Good Morning Heartache and Don’t Explain, as well as the swinging sessions, such as the live recording of Now Baby or Never, with Basie, that made her a star from Harlem to Carnegie Hall.
And her singing of Strange Fruit gets a section all to itself – a song that deserves a movie of its own – and it’s Holiday’s insistence on singing it, even to the detriment of her own health and career, that haunts this film like a ghost.
Billie had terrible taste in men, a voracious appetite for sex and drugs, and was an unreachable soul, as her voice suggests. Subtle, empathetic colourisation from artist Marina Amaral brings the crackling old quality to new life without losing the vintage elements. The story and the voice of Billie Holiday always jolts you, makes you shudder, makes you pay attention, seductive yet lethal and sharp, a cocktail you just want more of. Watching Billie, I was hooked again.