Billie Holiday Documentary Chronicles Two Lives

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How does one craft a biography of Billie Holiday with a surprise ending?

She is perhaps the most intensely chronicled figure in jazz history. The details of her short, sad life are by now engraved in granite. But in the new documentary Billie—in theaters and streaming beginning Dec. 4—director James Erskine devises a Citizen Kane-like angle through which to convey a familiar tale: It is a biography within a biography in which he tells the story of journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl’s long quest to unlock Holiday’s story.

Kuehl was a 14-year-old with a middle-class Bronx background when, in the early ’60s, she discovered the Verve LP The Essential Billie Holiday. The 1956 Carnegie Hall concert recording was an epiphany and cast a spell. A strange voice,” she reflects in the film, more real and true than Id ever heard. I had no choice. I had to listen to where that voice came from.”

Her search begins several years later and becomes the films parallel plot line. The literature on Holiday was still slim then. William Duffys Lady Sings the Blues was the only book in print. But many of Holidays contemporaries were still alive.

A real and unsentimental” biography was waiting to be written, and Kuehl believed she was the one to write it. She began seeking out anyone who had ever crossed Holidays path and would talk about her. During the next 10 years, she recorded more than 200 hours of cassette interviews with both the famous and the forgotten—musicians, police officers, classmates, lovers, pimps, abusers, managers, rescuers and bystanders. Taken together, the interviews contain much speculation, many generalities, and abundant disagreements because each witness had formed his or her own myths about Holiday by then.

Kuehl recorded her final interview in November 1977, two years after the publication of John Chiltons Billies Blues, the first important Holiday biography. But Kuehl didnt survive to complete her book. She died unexpectedly under suspicious circumstances in April 1978.

But the cassettes and Kuehls notes survived and were sold by her family a decade later to a New Jersey collector named Toby Byron. Their secrets aged in a kind of limbo. Knowledge of their existence circulated within a tight circle of Holiday experts, one of whom, Donald Clarke, gained access to them for his 1994 biography, Wishing on the Moon. Eleven years later, Julia Blackburn drew heavily on them for her book With Billie, which is virtually a transcript of the interviews.

Clarke and Blackburn were how I first discovered their existence,” Erskine said last week from his home near Norfolk, England. I didnt really start listening to Billie until the year 2000, when I was 27. ... I was immediately transfixed by her voice.”

Several years ago, producer Barry Clark-Ewers asked Erskine if there were any film projects he had in mind. He thought at once of Holiday. The problem was finding a fresh frame for a familiar story. Erskine thought about the Kuehl tapes and wondered if they still existed.

I tried half-heartedly myself to find them,” Erskine recalls, but I wasnt successful. Barry, on the other hand, was very good at finding obscure things and people. It took him just a couple of months.

“They were 40- and 50-year-old cassettes that hadnt been played in years,” Erskine continued. When we made a deal to use them, we wanted to make sure we werent spending a lot of money on nothing. So, we took them to a studio in New York and had a specialist review them. And, sure enough, some snapped and had to be rebuilt. The first tape we heard was Charles Mingus with his deep, gravelly voice, so rich in atmosphere. And especially there were the voices of street hustlers from the ’30s that are largely lost to history.”

The spoken word is always more powerful than its printed proxy. Erskine and Clark-Ewers realized they had come upon a virgin treasure trove of audio testimony that would yield a unique dual biography: one of Holiday and the other of Kuehl.

I wanted to frame the film through the verisimilitude of Lindas journey in the 1970s,” Erskine said, her own process of getting close to Billie. But there were more than 200 hours of often-sprawling conversations. So, I needed some sort of rigor in choosing what to use. What I decided was, I would only allow people to speak if they were either relating an event to which they were an eyewitness or if they were relating a conversation they had with Billie where she related an event. I was trying to minimize the amount of hearsay ... .”

That became the essential structure of the film. But where did Kuehl fit in?

She was one of the draws for me,” Erskine explained. But it wasnt apparent to me at the beginning how I would be able to weave her own story into Billies. Indeed, when I first spoke to the family, they said they had no photos of her. Then, when I visited their house and went into the den, there were thousands of home movies. We were able to restore them and add a visual portrait of Linda to remind you of who was asking the questions. And what perspective is she coming from? She was a feminist who wanted to explore Billie as a female artist and not one purely defined by the lines drawn around her by men. I thought it was really interesting to allow her to take us through those tapes and the questions she chose to ask. It gives the story an inner voice from Lindas perspective.”

Erskine covers the audio interludes visually with close-ups of cassettes being slotted into and out of tape decks—in a sense, visual symbols of Kuehls presence.

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