She was nicknamed a unique Billie, and for posterity she became Lady Day. The one whose baptismal name Eleanora Harris Fagan will have marked with her voice the XXe century. A career all the more prodigious as it was interrupted by periods of incarceration and stopped dead on July 17, 1959, just a few months after the death of what was undoubtedly her best friend, saxophonist Lester Young. The singer was then 44 years old, but to review the final images of her on stage, which conclude this film soberly titled Billie, she seemed much more. Weakened, emaciated, by a life of excess that would make most of the bad girls current for nice communicants. Raised roughly, she had to endure rape as a child, the influence of a ferocious mother, the regular beating of pimp lovers, the relentlessness of the FBI and the prevailing racism which in particular forced Benny Goodman to separate from her husband. ‘she. That’s a lot for one woman, no matter how strong she is. And, as this documentary concludes, the highest paid black artist of the time will end up ruined, with $ 750 in his pocket. All of those things the fan has known for ages are present here, as they already were in the 1972 biopic. Lady Sings the Blues (based on her autobiography, to say the least subjective) where she is played by Diana Ross.
If the songs of Billie Holiday were often summoned to the cinema to evoke America in black and white – starting with Strange Fruits, whose words denounce the lynchings organized by the “Valiant South” -, rarer are the documentaries devoted to the one through which we could read “All the beauty and all the misery in the world”, according to her friend, singer Sylvia Syms. This testimony is the first in a long series of interviews conducted by journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl from 1970 onwards, which form the basis of this documentary by James Erskine. The director was able to restore some of these some two hundred hours of unpublished tapes that should have been the matrix of a biography on the singer, never written despite eight years of relentless investigation: we hear anecdotes delivered by friends of childhood as one of his pimps, and especially the memories of certain musicians (Tony Bennett, still unknown, serves him a gin, the drummer Jo Jones leads a regular attack against the producer John Hammond, accused of racism …), who boils to the end compose a portrait as touching of the artist as it is striking of the time. To this raw material, James Erskine assistant radio interviews of Billie, archival images colorized or not, period photos and some more contemporary sequences.
Less classic for a documentary, there is also the desire to carry out a double portrait: we find there the tragic fate of Billie Holiday but also in the background that which is just as much of Linda Lipnack Kuehl, who would have been committed suicide on February 6, 1978 just after seeing Count Basie, with whom she had formed a close relationship over the course of her interviews. The traces of life of the latter – testimonies of her family, archive images… -, authentic fan who wanted “Show who Lady Day really was, without any sentimentality”, thus fit into the narration without breaking its continuity. Better, this “little” story in history allows, in subtle punctuations, to escape the simple chronological narrative, which too often flattens the monographs. It is all the originality of this documentary, scripted like an investigation which illuminates the dark side of America.
Billie of James Erskine (1 h 32).