Documentary reveals the ‘real’ Billie Holiday

Saturday: Billie: In Search of Billie Holiday; (BBC2, 9.45pm)

Friday, 12th March 2021, 5:00 pm

You could say that there’s been a wave of interest in jazz singer Billie Holiday – she’s the subject of a new biopic, The United States vs. Billie Holiday, which won a Golden Globe for leading lady Andra Day.

However, it’s probably also fair to say that interest in her never waned in the first place. The singer, who was born Eleanora Fagan in Philadelphia in 1915, is considered to be one of the greatest voices of all time and remains influential, continually winning over new fans.

Her life was also fascinating. While she may have found commercial success, she was also a black woman in a white man’s world, and her recording of Strange Fruit, the first protest song of the civil rights movement, earned her powerful enemies (as the aforementioned The United States vs. Billie Holiday explores). She also battled drug and alcohol problems, and was jailed for narcotics possession in the 1947 – she was released the following year on good behaviour. Her private life was also turbulent, and she died in 1959 at the age of just 44.

As the documentary Billie: In Search of Billie Holiday points out, although she may have been a global star who left behind an impressive legacy, the singer nicknamed Lady Day was also something of an enigma. Her autobiography Lady Sings the Blues, which was published in 1956 (and formed the basis of a 1972 film of the same name, starring Diana Ross) was strikingly candid – it has the attention-grabbing opening lines “Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married. He was 18, she was 16, and I was three” – but was also full of inaccuracies.

So, in the late 1960s journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl set out to write the definitive biography of Holiday. Over the next decade, the aspiring author tracked down may of the key figures in the singer’s short life and recorded interviews with them. The people she spoke to ranged from musical greats like Charles Mingus, Tony Bennett, Sylvia Syms and Count Basie to Holiday’s cousin, schoolfriends, lovers, lawyers, pimps and even the FBI agents who arrested her.

The writer was able to coax some incredibly raw and emotional testimony from them, perhaps in part because she was speaking to them less than two decades after Day’s death. It would no doubt have made for a remarkable book, but Lipnack Kuehl died in 1978 before she could finish it and the interviews went unheard – until now.

Drawing on 200 hours of tapes, this documentary explores Holiday’s life through the words of some of the people who knew her best. It’s not just the audio that has been restored – the interviews are accompanied by footage and stills colourised by one of the world’s leading colour artists.

The film is also more than tribute to Holiday. It also sheds light on Lipnack Kuehl, who set out to understand the singer’s life, and in the process may have sacrificed her own.

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