Billie Holiday Documentary Chronicles Two Lives

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Two things stand out about the accompanying visuals. While many appear in black-and-white, others are carefully colorized, giving them a fresh life without detaching them from their time. Overall, the quality of the images is astonishing. Especially striking is the first moving image we have of Holiday, when she sings “Saddest Tale” in the famous 1935 Duke Ellington short Symphony in Black: A Rhapsody of Negro Life. Long available on YouTube in second- and third-generation dubs, here the 19-year-old Holiday jumps off the screen with a level of visual shading and detail never before seen. Erskine wisely lets it play in black-and-white. Similarly pristine is Holiday and Count Basie’s octet from a smartly colorized 1950 short.

The decision to colorize was partly artistic and partly financial,” Erskine noted. It is ridiculously expensive and difficult. With Symphony in Black, we were going back almost to her childhood. So, we decided to let that remain in black-and-white. We found a fresh 2k telecine video that must have been taken from the original negative, thus the quality. The 1950 short [of Holiday singing ‘Now Baby Or Never’ and ‘God Bless The Child’] came from an untouched 35-millimeter print we found in the British Film Institute vault. It was just marked Universal Music 1950.

In choosing to colorize or not, I didnt want to be bound by the limited technology of the day, which was forcing us into black-and-white. Billie lived in a full-color world in the ’30s and ’40s, and [digital colorist] Marina Amarals colorization of the stills is amazing.”

Early in the film, Tony Bennett strikes a tone of ineluctable doom, musing, Why do all girl singers crack up when they hit the top?” Despite the sweeping sexism of his premise, he sounds a familiar note in the literature on Holiday. In pursuing an answer, Erskine necessarily finds himself confined to the darker paths that Kuehl followed in her interviews, which narrate the story. By the ’60s and ’70s, when Kuehl’s search was underway, that darkness had been baked into Holidays identity for more than 25 years. It had become a kind of shadow marketing strategy that would amplify her persona. Jazz critics like Leonard Feather became her handmaidens in perpetuating it.

Linda may have discovered Billie as a tragic figure,” Erskine speculated. But based on her notes and manuscripts, I dont think that was the story she was trying to do. She was trying to excavate why this womans issues led where they did. She wanted to walk that journey and remind people what was beautiful about Billie and explain how such a beautiful flower could be so crushed.”

Kuehls quest led to interviews with a fascinating, extensive cast of characters: Count Basie, trombonist Melba Liston, guitarist Barney Kessel, record producers John Hammond and Milt Gabler, dancer/singer Marie Bryant, nightclub owner Barney Josephson and even Jimmy Fletcher, the narcotics agent who helped engineer Holidays arrest in 1947 for heroin. Fletcher says that it was Holiday’s agent, Joe Glaser, who wanted her busted because it was the only way to save her. Her arrest landed her in federal prison in West Virginia; she was released early, thanks to good behavior, on March 16, 1948.

Kuehls persistent efforts to understand her subject broke new ground that others, like Clarke and Blackburn, would build on and weave into existing Holiday lore. The irony seemed to come with a price.

I found it uncanny,” Erskine pondered, that a female biographer of Billie Holiday—her first female biographer—should find herself tragically dead before she tells her story. Theres something about that dangerous world that Billie inhabited and that Linda entered into that lends itself to this sort of noir ending.” Kuehls journey into that dark world provides a dramatic minor-key counterpart that in some ways echoes and amplifies the major storyline.

Billie: The Original Soundtrack (Verve) offers a compilation of the most popular music featured in the film, all of which has been previously issued. Versions of “Strange Fruit” and “Fine And Mellow” come from the original Commodore sessions, while other selections originated on Verve and MGM albums.

The soundtrack offers nothing from Holidays classic 1935–’41 body of work or the later Decca period that made her popular. Erskine noted that studio sessions were not his focus. Billies
preeminence was as a performer,” he said. I wanted to be able to see Billie perform because theres not a lot of film or video where we can see her singing to us. Part of the joy of the film is to have an evening with Billie, where she stands in front of you and sings to you.” DB

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