DownBeat March 2021

“Clarke and Blackburn were how I first dis- covered their existence,” Erskine said from his home near Norfolk, England. Several years ago, producer Barry Clark- Ewers asked Erskine if there were any film proj- ects he had in mind. He thought at once of Holiday. The problem was finding a fresh frame for a familiar story. Erskine thought about the Kuehl tapes and wondered if they still existed. “I tried half-heartedly myself to find them,” Erskine recalls, “but I wasn’t successful. Barry, on the other hand, was very good at finding obscure things and people. It took him just a couple of months. “Theywere 40- and 50-year-old cassettes that hadn’t been played in years,” Erskine continued. “When we made a deal to use them, we wanted to make sure we weren’t spending a lot of money on nothing. So, we took them to a studio in New York and had a specialist review them. And, sure enough, some snapped and had to be rebuilt.The first tape we heard was Charles Mingus with his deep, gravelly voice, so rich in atmosphere. And especially there were the voices of street hustlers from the ’30s that are largely lost to history.” Erskine and Clark-Ewers realized they had come upon a virgin treasure trove of audio testi- mony that would yield a unique dual biography: one of Holiday and the other of Kuehl. “I wanted to frame the film through the veri- similitude of Linda’s journey in the 1970s,” Erskine said, “her own process of getting close to Billie. But there were more than 200 hours of often sprawling conversations. So, I needed some sort of rigor in choosing what to use. What I decided was, I would only allow people to speak if they were either relating an event to which they were an eyewitness, or if they were relating a con- versation they had with Billie where she related an event. I was trying to minimize the amount of hearsay.” That became the essential structure of the film. But where did Kuehl fit in? “She was one of the draws for me,” Erskine explained. “But it wasn’t apparent to me at the beginning how I would be able to weave her own story intoBillie’s. Indeed, when I first spoke to the family, they said they had no photos of her.Then, when I visited their house and went into the den, there were thousands of home movies. We were able to restore them and add a visual portrait of Linda to remind you of whowas asking the ques- tions. And what perspective is she coming from? Shewas a feministwhowanted to exploreBillie as a female artist and not one purely defined by the lines drawn around her by men. I thought it was really interesting to allow her to take us through those tapes and the questions she chose to ask. It gives the story an inner voice from Linda’s perspective.” Erskine covers the audio interludes visually with close-ups of cassettes being slotted into and out of tape decks—in a sense, visual symbols of

A new documentary about Billie Holiday (seen here with pianist Bobby Tucker) includes photos and film clips that have been digitally colorized by Marina Amaral.

Billie Holiday Documentary Chronicles 2Women’s Lives

who had ever crossed Holiday’s path and would talk about her. During the next 10 years, she recorded more than 200 hours of cassette inter- views with both the famous and the forgotten— musicians, police officers, classmates, lovers, pimps, abusers, managers, rescuers and bystand- ers. Taken together, the interviews contain much speculation, many generalities and abundant dis- agreements; each witness had formed his or her ownmyths about Holiday by then. Kuehl recorded her final interview in November 1977, two years after the publication of John Chilton’s Billie’s Blues , the first import- ant Holiday biography. But Kuehl didn’t survive to complete her book. She died unexpectedly in April 1978, a suspected suicide. The cassettes and Kuehl’s notes survived and were sold by her family a decade later to a New Jersey collector named Toby Byron. Their secrets aged in a kind of limbo. Knowledge of their exis- tence circulated within a tight circle of Holiday experts, one of whom, Donald Clarke, gained access to them for his 1994 biography, Wishing on the Moon . Eleven years later, Julia Blackburn drew heavily on them for her book With Billie , which is virtually a transcript of the interviews.

SHE IS PERHAPS THE MOST INTENSELY chronicled figure in jazz history. The details of her short, sad life are by now engraved in gran- ite. But in the new documentary Billie , director James Erskine devises a Citizen Kane -like angle through which to convey a familiar tale: It is a biography within a biography in which he tells the story of journalist Linda LipnackKuehl’s long quest to unlock Billie Holiday’s story. Kuehl was a 14-year-old with a middle-class Bronx background when, in the early ’60s, she discovered the Verve LP The Essential Billie Holiday . The 1956 Carnegie Hall concert record- ing was an epiphany and cast a spell. “A strange voice,” she reflects in the film, “more real and true than I’d ever heard. I hadno choice. I had to listen to where that voice came from.” Her search begins several years later and becomes the film’s parallel plot line.The literature on Holiday was still slim then. William Duffy’s Lady Sings the Blues was the only book in print. But many of Holiday’s contemporaries were still alive. A “real and unsentimental” biography was waiting to be written, andKuehl believed she was the one to write it. She began seeking out anyone


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