Lady Day is back to sing the blues once again in a documentary that takes an unusual approach.


It was over sixty years ago that the great Billie Holiday died but the passage of time has only served to confirm her standing as one of the finest singers of the twentieth century. With so many documentaries being made these days, it is not really surprising that she should now become the subject of one. It is the work of James Erskine who has already shown his ability in this field having given us such works as The Ice King, a very effective biopic of John Curry. Nevertheless, in turning to Billie Holiday he is taking on a life that has already been the subject of TV films and of a dramatised movie (1972's Lady Sings the Blues starring Diana Ross as Holiday) while the numerous books about Billie include her own autobiography which had the same title as that cinema film.


If Billie is welcome even so, it has to be admitted that it suffers from the rather odd approach adopted. A prime source for material here comes in the form of tapes which have not previously been made public and which were in the possession of the late Linda Lipnick Kuehl (she had recorded them for use in writing a book that remained unfinished). They contain interviews with a range of people who knew Billie and are made central to the film, the extracts from them being fitted to images that are essentially secondary. This is a mode perfected by Asif Kapadia in his documentaries, but Erskine is less adept at turning this style into a fully satisfying format. We do, however, get over ten songs from Holiday albeit that a number of them come with distracting comments placed over them even if what is said is relatively brief. The clips of Billie singing (she is also heard in radio interviews) are certainly well worthwhile, but only one of them is clearly preferable to listening to her on record - her famous song confronting racial violence, ‘Strange Fruit’, positively gains from seeing Holiday's facial expressions as she sings.


Billie has a 15 certificate and does not hold back in dealing with the singer's drug addiction or her sex life (she had affairs with women as well as men and one of them, Tallulah Bankhead, described Billie as a sex machine). However, while this film usefully underlines yet again the treatment of black people in America during segregation, the role played by heroin and cocaine and by abusive males is a familiar part of Billie's story. To his credit Erskine does bring out the extent to which the FBI went out of their way to nail her despite it being apparent that when it came to drugs she was an addict and not a trafficker. Equally, the film does not flinch from pondering the possibility that something in her personality drove her to seek unhappiness. That's all a valid part of the portrait, but the emphasis on Kuehl as a source leads away from Holiday when it opens up questions about Kuehl's supposed suicide in 1978. That official view is challenged with a suggestion that it was murder. But this is hardly relevant to Billie Holiday and leads to no significant revelation and to feature this issue late on in the film seems out of place. In short, there are aspects of Billie which prevent it from being as good as one would have expected but there is quite enough here to make it worth a look. Indeed, when it comes to those few minutes featuring the song ‘Strange Fruit’ it becomes indispensable.




Featuring  Myra Luftman, John Hammond, Jean Allen, Sylvia Syms.


Dir James Erskine, Pro Barry Clark Ewers, Victoria Gregory, James Erskine and Laure Vaysse, Ph Tim Cragg, Ed Avdhesh Mohla, Music Hans Mullers, Costumes Frédérique Leroy.


Altitude Film Entertainment/New Black Films/Concord/Polygram Entertainment-Altitude Film Distribution.
96 mins. UK. 2019. Rel: 16 November 2020. Available on Amazon and iTunes. Cert. 15.