Billie Holiday was an enigmatic figure in her day and now the new documentary, “Billie,” sets out to show the world who she really was.
Holiday was a renowned jazz singer who found her path to stardom via the smoky nightclubs of Harlem in the 1930s. By the 40s, she was performing before a sold out crowd at Carnegie Hall and collaborating with the likes of Fred Astaire. It was hard to pin down much about Holiday’s origins as she was said to have a habit of half-truths and changing the story depending on the room she was in.
In 1939, she recorded “Strange Fruit,” the record that would be her biggest seller. It would also become known as the first protest song and garner her the wrong kind of attention from powerful people who regarded her as something of a threat.
In the late 1960s, Linda Lipnack Kuehl set out to write a biography on the singer. She tracked down everyone she could that would know anything about the real Billie Holiday. Over the next several years, she recorded over 200 hours of audio interviews. Ultimately, though, the book was never finished and the recordings sat unused for more than 40 years.
When you search for Linda Lipnack Kuehl online, it’s nearly impossible to find anything about her. The results lead to a series of stories about Holiday and about Kuehl’s work being used for the documentary. But the writer herself is something of a ghost. She died without ever completing her manuscript. Now all that is left of her is a voice on the recordings she left behind.
James Erskine directs this documentary, which used many innovative techniques for restoring 1970s-quality audio, as well as photos and archival footage that dates back more than seven decades. Erskine directed an episode of “American Masters” about legendary tennis champ Billie Jean King. He also directed the documentary “The Battle of the Sexes” in 2013. He has worked in film and television, mainly in documentary storytelling, and has one Emmy nomination.
In the beginning stages of the project, Erskine had this to say about listening to Kuehl’s recordings:
What we heard was wonderful. The voices of Charles Mingus, Tony Bennett, Billie Holiday’s childhood pals and FBI agents, drifting and often crackling through time from the cafes, restaurants and night-clubs of the 1970s where Linda recorded them. Some of the tapes fell apart immediately, others were barely comprehensible, but many, many told us gems and insights “straight from the horse’s mouth”. We knew we were on to something.
Check out this exclusive clip, which highlights just two of the many interviews this film has uncovered.
“Billie” is co-produced by New Black Films and Reliance Entertainment Productions. It premiered at Telluride over the weekend, but does not yet have a release date.