I have always been attracted to artists who are also tortured souls. In my opinion, these are the true artists – the ones whose talents are so immense they aren’t able to contain it, and they would need other things in their lives to make themselves ‘whole,’ and that could be sex, drugs, rock and roll lifestyle. Billie Holiday fits that category to a T. When she sings you see everything in life in her voice, the beauty, the joy, the sorrow, and the pain – all of it. When being compared to Ella Fitzgerald, for example: ‘When Ella sings ‘My man’s gone now,’ you feel her man going to the store to get milk, but when Billie sings, it you see her man leaving, suitcase in hand, and you feel her pain.’ No truer words are spoken.
James Erskine captures all of that in his documentary. It helps that he has access to the interview tapes of Linda Kuehl. Kuehl sought to interview people about Holiday, and she died before its publication (There is a bit of a mystery to that too) Erskine documented some of her writing, and drew from numerous taped interviews, and we get a glimpse of Holiday’s life – how she was a prostitute at age 13, and lived the fast life – drugs, wild sex escapades with both man and women. It also chronicled her bad choices in men, how they used her till the very end of her life.
Her artistry is highlighted too. If you are not touched by ‘Strange Fruit,’ then you and I cannot be friends. And the clip from London of her singing ‘Don’t Explain’ months before her passing will break your heart into a million pieces. This film would be great for those wanting to get to know her life, but even for Billiphiles like me you’ll get a lot.