“Billie” and her rise into the abyss «

Her story has never been heard like this: James Erskine’s fantastic documentary draws a multi-vocal portrait of jazz icon Billie Holiday and addresses the inequality of black female artists.

from Julia Schafferhofer | 7.47 p.m., November 10, 2021


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Captivating music film that aims to tell the full story of Billie Holiday – now in the cinema © Polyfilm

Valuation: ****

She was always THE lady. A salutation, the world star Billie Holiday stayed, even if they no longer treated men and managers like one. Within a year, two new films were released that shed light on the life of the jazz icon with the real name of Eleanora Fagan (1915–1959). While the thickly applied, sometimes intoxicating “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” with Andra Day in the lead role did not take the facts and details too seriously James Erskines Documentary with the simple title “Billie” a film about an extraordinary artist that is well worth seeing.
The British director was able to draw on around 200 hours of interview material that the American journalist provided Linda Lipnack Kuehl in the 1970s with musicians like Charles Mingus or Count Basie, confidantes, lovers, pimps and FBI agents. Her goal was to draw a comprehensive picture of Bille Holiday after various biographies full of falsehoods, rumors and omissions. But it didn’t come to that. In 1978 the journalist committed suicide.

With unique concert recordings of their melancholy “improvised horn”, photographs and excerpts from films and TV reports, these tapes form a polyphonic picture between successes in New York’s Carnegie Hall, humiliations in childhood, violence by lovers and suitors and constant drug abuse. Excesses. “She sang the truth. She paid the prize “, it says in the subtitle of the film. So, she sang the truth and paid the price for it. Clearly: Erskine was not only interested in her incomparable voice, but also in her rebellious spirit. According to the director, Billie is “the story of a genius, a woman who vehemently defended herself against those people who wanted to destroy her”. She fought like a girl standing up against racism, discrimination, gender roles and for her artistic independence. At this point she defied all adversity with all passion, in life at her pace she failed.

The contemporary document reports how she was supposed to use darker make-up on her face on a tour with Count Basie through the southern states, enter concert halls through the kitchen or spend the night in the tour bus because the hotel did not accept African Americans. There are harrowing scenes that testify to how she was defamed despite her fame.
And yet: Billie Holiday has never been so delightfully, incredibly close.

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