By Garth Twa
Billie Holiday was born to an unwed teenage mother in 1915 and raised on the streets of Baltimore. She turned tricks as a young teenager, which may not have been the traditional education for a musician who would later sell out Carnegie Hall, but it certainly proved to be excellent training for how to survive in the music business. She moved to Harlem while still a teenager and, along with her mother, started turning tricks there. Luckily, she also started singing in nightclubs. By the age of 18 she was recording her first record, with Benny Goodman. Remarkably, for a black female artist in the 30s and 40s, she never relinquished her deep, authentic connection to her music, her convictions, or the sense of where she came from. Her singing has no peers with its amalgam of diaphanous fragility, unflinching power, and emotional vivisection; her voice was more like Louis Armstrong’s trumpet than a girl singer adding candy to a big band.
James Erskine’s Billie is a visually rich, kaleidoscopic film rife with profound immediacy, intimacy, and revelations. The film opens with a focus not on Holiday, but on Linda Lipnack Kuehl, a writer who was researching, in the 60s and 70s, a book on Holiday when she mysteriously died before she completing it. Kuehl made hundreds of hours of audio cassettes, interviewing an astonishing array of people who knew the singer. Kuehl’s ambition underscores the parallel arc of Billie Holiday; both women needed courage and resilience to get what they wanted.
Garth: This film is like an investigation into an investigation of Billie Holiday, what drew you to the subject?
James: I always loved Billie Holiday, and I am interested in layered narratives. One of the things we tried to present in the film is that there is no such thing as the truth. If you were to ask ten people about you, they wouldn’t say the same thing, so especially with somebody who has become a legend, I felt it was such an interesting way in. I had material from somebody who had spoken to eyewitnesses. If I were to make a film about Billie Holiday without this material, I would have been relying on people who had heard stories about heard stories, on hearsay. One of our disciplines at the table, because there was so much material, was that we can only use people reporting events that they had actually witnessed, or reporting conversations where Billie relayed to them a conversation about her past. I felt it was like a detective story and the only way to do it was not to crosscut voices but to let each person have their solo and leave an impression of the artist. Billie is a jazz artist and I thought it was particularly fitting to not, you know, complete the sentence.
Garth: These tapes are invaluable, a trove of intimate conversations with some of the greatest names in 20th Century jazz, and they’ve never been heard before. How did you get a hold of them?
James Erskine: The tapes were sold by Linda’s sister to a collector in the late 80s who sat on them and didn’t really exploit them. A couple of writers who had written books about Billie had access to some of the transcripts but not the tapes themselves, and not all of the tapes had been transcribed. That’s how I had become aware of them and I thought they could be the basis of something.
Garth: Was there any difficulty in getting the rights? I mean, the magnitude of the people she interviewed…Tony Bennett? Count Basie?
James: No, that was all fine. The biggest problem was resurrecting them. When we got the tapes, they were not in the best condition. I mean, 50-year-old audio cassettes? But we used this guy in Belgium, actually, a genius, to literally excavate the sound from sometimes just buzz on a tape.
Garth: Linda was an interesting interviewer—she got really candid, sometimes seductive, sometimes contentious. Less like an interviewer than, I don’t know, an intrusive friend. These were conversations that were not intended to be heard, or used in a documentary. They were talking down and dirty, getting into some very raunchy details…
James: I really wanted to create that honesty. And the other thing that I’m really proud of in the film is that we represent voices that would otherwise be lost in time. When else is the real voice of a pimp in Baltimore in the 1920s heard on screen? Never. And with the artists, they are all so diverse. We wanted to represent the people in Billie’s life as much as the story of Billie’s life, so we made sure there were women commenting throughout, we made sure there were white women commenting throughout, that there were black men, white men, musicians, power brokers—a tapestry.
Garth: It was indeed a revelation to hear from some of these people, like her pimp that you mentioned, Skinny Davenport, saying, ‘Yeah, I knocked her around and she liked it.’ Wow, that’s Billie Holiday you’re talking about! Or when her cousin was talking about her vocabulary and said her favourite phrase was, ‘Suck my ass, motherfucker.’ What? From the woman who sang ‘Good Morning, Heartache’! Was there anything in the tapes that shocked you?
James: I think what shocked me most was the discovery that all of her men were informants. They were all working both sides of the fence. I mean, John Levy [Holiday’s lover and manager] was picked up by Jimmy Fletcher, who was the FBI guy assigned to follow him in 1934, on a cocaine rap in Kansas City. Even before Levy entered Billie Holiday’s life, ten years later, he’s already a rat bag, he’s already going to rat her out from the beginning. There’s almost a closer bond between Jimmy Fletcher and the douchebag husband than there is with his wife, Billie Holiday.
Garth: One of the things that was startling in the film is the burst of color footage. You’ve mentioned before that you had a colourist that you worked with…
James: We looked but there is no colour footage of Billie Holiday and very few colour images, but we really wanted to show how vibrant Billie’s world was and not be limited by the technology of the day, or even the economics of the day. Obviously, we used some black and white images but by bringing in colour it helps make her more immediate and not be ghettoized in the black and white of the past. I think she’s a really relevant figure in today’s world, not just in her biography but in the way that she performs. She sings about sex, she sings about spousal abuse; she sings about stuff that wouldn’t be out of place for a contemporary singer or R&B artist, but she’s singing it in the 40s and 50s. I think one of the amazing things about Billie is the immediacy with which she delivers her music. It was a specific choice to find footage of her rather than just using recordings because I felt the essence of Billie Holiday was as a performer. What really happens in Billie’s life is getting up on stage every night doing one show, two shows, three shows… she’s doing that from the age of 14 really when she’s singing in brothels.
Garth: I held my breath at the footage of her singing ‘Strange Fruit.’ You can see the implacability right there in her face: this is a woman who knows who she is, unafraid, unabashed. She looks directly into the camera, and into the viewer’s soul. She is going to make you listen.
James: I think that performance is 1959, it’s weeks before she died. It’s almost like she’s calling up the spirits. She’s performing, not just singing.
Garth: You’re right. And it’s still distressing, almost unendurable, even today. The imagery was beyond anything allowed in the motion pictures at the time. It was horrifying, actually, as she enunciated the hard consonants that hit you like a rock—‘bulging eyes and the twisted mouth’ and ‘for the crows to pluck…for the wind to suck…for the sun to rot.’ Literally unforgettable. And she first did the song in 1939. And she refused to stop singing it, even when audiences got up and left. Why did you choose that particular performance? It is very late, it’s 20 years after she debuted the song…
James: It is the only filmed performance of ‘Strange Fruit’ we could find. And it works because from the start we’re thrown into the obstacles she has to overcome and the racial narrative is very implicit. But we’ve created this architecture where everybody who knew her talks about what she went though, and we’re waiting for the most hurt person to sing and show us what pain is. I really wanted to have that moment where she stands up and she sings it and everything from there on is, basically, ‘They’re going to get her.’ She’s never going to escape; she’s a black woman who’s spoken out of turn and told truth to power. That’s one of the things I really wanted to show. Once she has the power to stand up, once she’s past being a kid, she basically says, ‘You don’t own me.’ She says it to the husband, she says it to the prison warden…
Garth: So many people on the tapes, the people who knew her, talked about her not being a victim. Of course, she was preyed on by men, by the music industry, but for her day she was surprisingly in command. Some of the interviewees called her a masochist, one even called her a psychopath…
James: Those are all the forces of the patriarchy, aren’t they? I was determined that she should be shown as a fighter, and the truth about a fighter is that they get punched so many times and eventually they wilt. Men have traditionally owned history, owned the record companies, owned journalism, ran the bands. It was inevitable that she was going to be portrayed as a victim by somebody who automatically sees themself as superior. Billie deserves to be seen on her own terms. Let’s face it, she was not only a woman, she was an African American woman, a dirt poor African American woman, and she didn’t, like most vocalists, come through the church. She came from the brothels. Who else comes from the brothels? Aretha Franklin doesn’t.
Garth: Louis Armstrong does.
James: Yeah, Louis Armstrong does, but he has a di*k.
Garth: It seems she got a lot from the brothels! She unflinchingly owned her sexuality. I mean, was she used for sex, or did she use men for sex? She slept with Benny Goodman, and far from being a victim she became the first black singer to front a white orchestra. And, also, with her frank bisexuality, she was again holding the power, as well as being on the vanguard of sexual liberation.
James: In the world in which she grew up, as her cousin says, of course she turned tricks, everybody turned tricks then. There’s a disambiguation between sex and love, that sex is something you trade, she was learning that at an early age; it wasn’t a big deal to give it away if it was what you needed to survive or to prosper. You know, when she chooses the John Levy’s of the world, they were nasty, nasty pieces of work but they were actually the top dogs in music circles. They protected her, they made sure she got paid. Because if she’s hanging out with the wimpy piano guy, the wimpy piano guy doesn’t get paid because John Levy decides not to pay him. She’s choosing the men who are, in a way, not the ideal option, but they are a pragmatic way to survive.
Garth: And with Levy she gave as good as she got—didn’t she smash his head open?
James: Yeah. She would do that to punters as well, if they tried to attack her, she would punch them back. She was a fighter.
Garth: And she was unapologetic about her appetites for drugs, alcohol, sex, luxury; she kowtowed to no one. One of the interviewees says, ‘She did not relate to legal codes; she did what she wanted.’
James: It was also really important to me to put that scene in where they were talking about her drinking everyone under the table and saying she just liked to get high, it’s as simple as that. Obviously, we know it wasn’t as simple as that but I really wanted to include her basically saying, ‘Fuck you, I’ll do whatever I want. I’ll have a good time.’ In my experience in life, nobody starts out taking drugs to have a bad time, although most movies start with a minor key at that moment. That’s something I didn’t want. I wanted her to have moments where she was just actually having a good time.
Garth: In the film, she herself, when asked about the burn-out rate among jazz musicians, said it’s because they ‘try to live a hundred days in one day.’ And she did that, but not only personally, but as an outspoken black woman during a time where she couldn’t even stay in the hotels where she was headlining.
James: When we released the movie in France, I was asked why wasn’t she more of an activist, and I’m like, ‘What are you talking about?’ In 1939 she gets up and sings, to a white audience, about lynching—this is 16 years before Rosa Parks, before the civil rights movement. And not only that she doesn’t do it once, she did it every single night for the next 20 years, apart from the year she was in prison. If that’s not activism, I don’t know what is.