There’s a structural oddity in this very fascinating if slightly flawed documentary about the life and times of the great singer Billie Holiday, who died at the age of 44 in 1959 after a lifetime of abuse from exploitative lovers and husbands, condescension and hypocrisy from the entertainment industry and a history of drug addiction and harassment from law enforcement officials, for whom she was a prominent target. In the 40s, she served time in prison on a drugs charge. The film poignantly tells us that, in jail, she “didn’t sing a note”.
Apart from music, Holiday loved sex, drugs, wealth and celebrity in ways that didn’t get men into the same kind of trouble. James Erskine’s film showcases the unforgettable Holiday voice: her elegantly casual, almost negligent readings of melodies, with a sensual moan or purr that was on the verge of a sob.
This film is based on a cache of fascinating audio tapes belonging to the journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl, which were first used in Julia Blackburn’s 2005 biography, With Billie. At the beginning of the 70s, Kuehl set out to write a definitive biography and amassed hundreds of hours of great interview material from the lips of people who really knew Holiday, including Count Basie and Charles Mingus. But the film tries – with only partial success – to make Kuehl herself part of the story, to put her life in parallel with Holiday’s, because she herself died young, in 1978, apparently from suicide, though her family now believe she was murdered. Was this because of dangerous truths that she was getting close to, connected with the criminal activities of people who exploited Holiday and other artists? Maybe. The film can’t really say.
But it certainly tells us a lot about Holiday, who had a brutal upbringing in Harlem, New York, and experienced sexual assault and prostitution. There is a nauseating interview with a pimp of that time who gigglingly claims that women were “proud” of the black eyes they received from him, a statement that itself provides a context for the agonising torch songs.
Her career was brought forward by the eagle-eyed promoter and producer John Hammond, although the film shows us that there was tension between Holiday and Hammond because of his insistence that she should be singing more stereotypical blues numbers. There is also a clip from the 1947 movie New Orleans, starring Louis Armstrong, in which Holiday was (like so many African-American female stars) landed with the role of the maid – of a cheeky, singing variety. But she carries this off with such sweetness and good-humoured flair. It’s clear that a Hollywood career could and should have been part of Holiday’s portfolio.
Above all, the film gives us Holiday’s extraordinary hit Strange Fruit, recorded in 1939, a ferocious work of art from the communist writer Abel Meeropol. That song goes far beyond the conventional and palatable concept of the “protest song”, which was in later years to have white audiences nodding supportively along in folk clubs and TV studios. Strange Fruit was radically confrontational and horrifying: a nightmare vision of black people being lynched that was the only acknowledgement in American popular culture that lynching existed at all.
Paradoxically, perhaps, the pure horror of the song was what allowed Holiday to get away with singing it as part of her set, with conventional songs either side of it. Audiences were simply stunned, although the number certainly nettled the authorities.
The film leaves us with the untied plot-strand of Kuehl’s life, but with a great deal of valuable material about Holiday herself. Erskine leaves it up to us to notice the echoes with the lives of other great singers, such as Judy Garland or Amy Winehouse, and challenges the conventional lite-tragic reading of Holiday being brought low by inner demons. The problem was the outer demons: the people harassing her, abusing her and stealing her money, and she had to rise above them all.
• Billie is on digital platforms from 13 November.