“BILLIE”— Remembering Lady Day


Remembering Lady Day

Amos Lassen

Billie Holiday was one of the most influential singers of her generation. She worked within the music industry for over twenty-five years and had an iconic voice. She was christened “Lay Day” by friend and collaborator Lester Young and began her career singing in nightclubs in Harlem. By the late 1930s and early 1940s she had become a renowned mainstream artist. She had worked with Count Basie, Artie Shaw and Teddy Wilson but her personal life often got in the way of her career.  

Holiday suffered an abusive childhood which later brought on drink and drug addictions that had great impact on both her personal and professional life. During the 1970s, journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl recorded many hours of interviews with people in Holiday’s life but died before being able to do anything with them. Now James Erskine gives us a new documentary on Billie that uses these tapes as a foundation and we get aloo at her career that we have never seen before.

Erskine tells Holiday’s story through key testimonies giving us a picture of a deeply troubled and incredibly talented artist. We’re also hear a lot of her music and the film is a fascinating picture of a singer whose off-stage life often overshadowed her voice.

Born Eleanor Fagan in Philadelphia in 1915, Holiday’s career spanned 47 years. Billie’s Holiday’s often troubled existence is seen through her vocal style and sensual ability to use phrasing and tempo.

The interviews and recordings give new life to what we know about the singer who lost her life after several decades of heartache. Heartache is the theme of  her repertoire yet there were also more upbeat tunes about love. Her life was filled with poverty, misogyny and racism and this is the story of a woman who got the rough end of the deal in the music business. She lived  with gusto and courage, lamenting them in her songs that reflect back on her deep need to be loved by men and women. She used drugs and alcohol to numb her emotional pain. Her story was a sad one.

We see a  vicious pimp who remembers beating the women under his power in an era where such events were commonplace in the backstreets of New York and learn that the police were often as venal in their approach to Billie. They pursued her throughout her life because of her success as a black woman. She served time for drug abuse but on her release, she managed to fill Carnegie Hall.

We see the soulful emotion of a talented artist who by definition was subject to highs and lows in giving of herself to her music which we especially see in archival footage  and hear in live recordings.

The film is no hagiography. It is dark, somber, and soulful yet appropriate, though, as it ibrings together Holiday’s story with a true crime tale. While the film shows the difficulties of Holiday’s career and, especially, personal life, it also deepen her music and complements the story of her life.

Leave a Reply